Lieutenant Island Views : Commentary About Finance, Politics and Baseball

The Treasury Department Should Focus Less on Social Policy and More on Financing the Economy

June 11, 2009
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On April 14 we posted a discussion entitled “How Deficits Are Financed Does Matter”
(see link below). We pointed out that the government was missing an opportunity to finance its deficits and stimulus measures at once in a lifetime 30 year long term rates in favor of cheaper short term levels. We suggested that that rate rises were inevitable, could come quickly and that waiting would have significant incremental costs to the US taxpayers as well as US corporate debt issuers whose bonds are priced at a spread to US Treasuries. The analogy of Americans who are using ARMs rather than financing long today is an apt comparison that most Americans can readily comprehend. They would not do what the Treasury is doing!!

At the time of our April post, 30 year Treasuries were trading at approximately 3.6%. Today 10 year treasuries are at 3.93% and 30 year Treasuries are now at 4.69%! A 100 basis point or 30% rise in six weeks is bad news. Worse yet, the 10 years are only at that level due to intervention by the Fed and treasury to keep yields below 4%.
That 100 basis point swing alone would result in an annual financing cost of an incremental annual cost of $10billion on $1trillion of debt. Even if we were to just finance for 10 years rather than the previously suggested 30 years, the cost would be $3billion more annually than had we financed for 30 years 7 weeks ago. To make matters worse, Brazil and Russia are making serious noises about dumping upwards of $10billion in treasuries in favor of new IMF bonds. This could be a leading example for other foreign governments to diversify their foreign reserves away from US Govt. obligations. India and China frequently follow in tandem with the actions of Brazil and its Central Bank wizard, Henrique Meirelles. The cost to taxpayers and US corporates would be huge and could significantly impair prospects for economic recovery.

I find it tragic that a socialist nation like Brazil is exhibiting far more economic discipline in financing its deficits and managing its reserves that the United States.
They are not confused between acting in their economic best interests vs. using the Treasury or Central Bank as an instrument of social policy. Likewise, they are very careful to evidence a strong respect for lender rights and the rule of law as it impacts their access to the capital markets.(

Add to these problems is the fact that investors at home and abroad are increasingly worried about the US Government’s lack of respect for the rule of law regarding lender rights in bankruptcy (e.g. GM and Chrysler). America won’t go the way of Weimar Germany but stagflation (inflation without growth) is a real possibility. Savings will be diminished and businesses will become less and less competitive globally. As an investor, government policy leads me to buy mostly foreign securities and inflation hedged companies with assets like oil and iron ore. As a card carrying Democrat, I am troubled for my country’s economic future. We can and must do better.

Follow the links below for copies of prior posts on financing the Treasury and Brazil’ Central Bank President

The New Freshman Econ Course for Everyone

May 25, 2009

Greg Mankew, former economic adviser to President George W Bush and currently an economics professor at Harvard, had an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “That Freshman (economics) Course Won’t be Quite the Same.” In it he suggests that recent economic events necessitate the inclusion of four new topics into an introductory college economics course:

1) The Role of Financial Institutions-
“The current crisis has found financial institutions at the center of the action. They will have to become more prominent in the classroom as well.”

2) The Effects of Leverage-
“If housing prices (and other leveraged assets) have fallen only 20%, why did the banks lose almost 100% of their money? The answer is leverage, the use of borrowed money to amplify gains and, in this case, losses…there is no doubt that its effects have played a central role in the crisis and will need a more prominent place in the economic curriculum.”

3) The Limits of Monetary Policy-
“When the economy suffers from high unemployment and reduced capacity utilization, the central bank can cut interest rates and stimulate demand…what would happen if the central bank cut interest rates all the way to zero and it still was not enough to get the economy going again? …The Fed is acting with the conviction that it has other tools to put the economy back on track. These include buying a much broader range of financial assets than it typically includes in its portfolio. Students will need to know about these other tools on monetary policy.”

4) The Challenge of Forecasting-
“Students should understand that a good course in economics will not equip them with a crystal ball. Instead, it will allow them to assess the risks and be ready for surprises.”

While a terrific list and spot on in its insights, one may argue that it is not sufficiently inclusive. This author and sometimes finance professor would add four incremental topics for consideration:

1) The Globalization of Credit Markets and Economies-
Globalization has changed the game significantly and reduced the power of any one nation or region’s central bank to solve a crisis by itself. Today, America’s largest creditors include investors from around the world. Similarly, economic demand is global. When America reduces consumption of Chinese goods, both nations have a problem. It is exacerbated globally when the Chinese then reduce their purchases of Brazilian iron ore, Middle Eastern oil and products from other parts of the world. The impact of this ever increasing economic interdependency must be studied by even an introductory economics student.

2) The Impact of Debt Instruments on Every Day Life-
Forty years ago, few Americans carried credit cards, had variable rate mortgages or leased automobiles. There were minimal securitizations of debt instruments and, as Greg Mankew points out, leverage was substantially less a factor in the US or other economies. Today such financing vehicles are ubiquitous. The internet and saturation advertising by entities like Di-Tech.Com and others have encouraged even the least credit worthy consumers to become part of the game. Investors from around the globe, from Atlanta to Reykjavik to Beijing have become part of the global investment community directly or through mutual funds, hedge funds, their employer’s pension funds and even money market funds. Unlike the past, when primarily the “investor class” and marginal workers were those at risk, now almost everyone is exposed and has suffered. Issues of regulation and general investment risk/appropriateness are now important to most Americans. Education about these investments becomes essential to one’s economic well being.

3) Deleveraging -What it Means-
Just as Greg Mankew is correct in his point that we need to understand the impact of leverage, students will need to know a great deal about the methods and the impact of deleveraging. A simple explanation is that, if not done carefully, it can be as painful as drug withdrawal for a heroin addict! Deleveraging in its simplest form means reducing debt. While easy to comprehend in concept, the implications of how it is done can vary significantly. Today we are witnessing the ramifications of lenders demanding repayment and foreclosing on mortgage loans. Similarly, when banks seek to reduce leverage by not renewing credit lines, this can strangle a business’ operations and potentially lead to bankruptcy, investor losses, job losses, negative growth etc. Raising equity to reduce debt may be a possible solution; however, it is easier said than done. It requires available capital and a positive investor view toward risk. Recently we have seen the US government play an important role as a “last resort” source of capital for deleveraging to stabilize our financial institutions. Arguably the actions of TARP, including direct equity infusions, have restored investor confidence and facilitated over $50 billion in new equity offerings in the month of May. Learning from these lessons and understanding the successes and the failures should benefit our understanding of how to deal with 21st century economic crises.

4) Bankruptcy-
Unlike any time in the last seventy years, bankruptcy has become a major risk factor in the US and global economies. While US laws are seemingly well established, and based on legal precedent, the rules of the road are now changing dramatically. US government intervention in the bankruptcy of Chrysler and the possible fall of General Motors is changing everything. Heretofore senior secured lenders had priority claims over junior creditors. Now, in part as a result of its equity ownership and capital support of US banks through TARP, the government is negating or minimizing such claims in favor of less senior lenders and unions. The ramifications of this activist approach raise many issues which may help or hurt the restoration of a major American industry, economic order and the vibrancy of the American capital markets. Regardless of one’s views, the actions and impacts must be studied carefully to provide a basis for prudent investing and to understand economic forces in our changing world.

It has been suggested by some that “education is wasted on the young.” In the case of the study of economics, this is hardly the case. Just as our parents learned economic lessons from the Depression, tomorrow’s leaders must learn from the new issues and actions of today. For Boomers, regardless of educational background or age, a refresher course based on current economic events would also be a welcome development!

A Humorous Look at Yankee Stadium Premium Seats

May 6, 2009
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Larry Johnson has a funny look at the premium seating situation at Yankee stadium. Last night the author attended a game in MLB seats on the third base side (almost premium seats). This was the first time in over 35 years of attending Red Sox/ Yankee games at the stadium that I can remember that the majority of the empty seats were at field level (and it was not due to rain, which only started in the 6th inning)

Yankee Ticket Pricing Redux

May 3, 2009
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Less you think that my posts about the Steinbrenners’ ticket pricing errors are “small beer”, please reflect on the following math. If the Yankees’ pricing policy results in an average of 3,000 premium seats going unsold at every game, that represents a year long total of 246,000 unsold tickets over a full season. Depending on your assumptions as to the price needed to sell all of those seats, here are the amounts of foregone income:

Mrkt Clrng Price Foregone Income
$250 per ticket $61.5 million
$300 per ticket $73.8 million
$350 per ticket $86.1 million
$400 per ticket $98.4 million
$450 per ticket $110.7 million
$500 per ticket $123.0 million

If the number of unsold seats is higher, the foregone income is even more. Not included in this total are incremental income from souvenirs etc. Of equal import, such revenue drops to the pre-tax line with very limited incremental expense as operating a stadium is largely a fixed cost endeavor. Regardless how rich you are, this is an extraordinary amount of money to forego because you do not want to admit a mistake!

Rules of Law Apply to Indentures as Well as Torture

May 3, 2009

Harvard Law School Professor Mark Roe made some extremely thoughtful observations in a Friday “Op Ed” piece in the Wall Street Journal (“A Chrysler Bankruptcy Won’t Be Quick”). Central to his discussion are the following key questions:

• Are Chrysler’s secured lenders receiving fair value for their claims as is their legal right in bankruptcy?
• Was the 70% lender vote to accept $.32 on the dollar valid or was it coercively tainted by government influence on banks who had received TARP funds? The law requires a 2/3 vote of secured creditors to accept a settlement. TARP banks make up the vast preponderance of the lenders who accepted the govenment’s proposal. Non-TARP lenders can reasonably ask if TARP lenders would have voted to accept if the government did not have an ability to influence their operations.

Professor Roe makes it clear that there is a reasonable basis for lenders to resist the settlement “mandated” by the Obama Administration. If so, creditor claims may make the final outcome less than clear and the process long and contentious.

What is not said but also must be considered is the generally heavy hand of the government to obviate the contractual rights of secure lenders. This does not begin to address the issue of unions gaining majority control of the Company.

The overall process raises significant and pernicious issues for our national economic future. If lenders rights are not protected, the appetite for U.S. corporate debt will diminish significantly. This will have severe adverse implications on economic growth, employment and our national standard of living. We have already seen how unilateral government interference has caused a significant measure of investor reluctance to play in TALF programs to buy “Toxic Loans”. The Chrysler bankruptcy could make matters worse. Fears of government intervention against indenture terms will not necessarily be reduced by higher interest rates, though higher rates will be one possible outcome. They will more than likely result in reduced lending until fears abate. The government will find that it has a hard time forcing lending by any institution that it does not control (ie foreign banks etc). If the over arching goal of Treasury policy is to get credit flowing, the government’s role in Chrysler is a major step backward.

Just as the American government was wrong in condoning torture against the laws of the nation and the civilized world, so too are actions which disregard freely negotiated loan terms which are critical to financing American industry. If we learned anything from the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, we need to understand and believe that our laws can’t be selectively followed or enforced.

Why You Should Hate Brussels Sprouts Rather Than Bankers!

April 17, 2009
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The Daily Deal has an uproarious essay on why we should not vilify bankers any more. They point out that it is just starting to get passé. New villains are needed. Their recommendation; Brussels sprouts!
Their case is absolutely compelling.

While many of you may not read ‘The Deal” on a regular basis, if at all, it is a terrifically well written “trade rag” for the finance industry. They have both a “wicked” sense of humor and social conscience in addition to being excellent reporters (Note: they assist this writer in his teaching at Morehouse College). Check out the article.

How Deficits Are Financed Does Matter

April 14, 2009
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Fortune magazine’s Allan Sloan poses some excellent questions and raises some ugly issues in his piece “Structuring the Treasury’s bet for a Long-Term payoff.” His central thesis is that the Treasury makes a mistake financing the majority of its new debt in the short term debt markets at .2% today rather than locking in long term (30 year) rates at about 3.6%. It is his belief that long rates are likely to rise as the US deficit increases. While he makes no judgment on the merits of a deficit driven stimulus plan, financing such long term deficits in the short term markets may make the near term savings extremely expensive in the long run.

Rates may rise regardless of what action the Treasury takes today, however, the actions taken today may make tomorrow worse than it need be. Rising rates are usually what happens when business conditions improve from recessionary levels. Financing an increasing deficit in the short term market today exposes the Treasury to greater refinancing risk in the future in what most likely will be a higher rate environment. Laws of supply and demand will also have an impact on the US Treasury’s cost of capital. The larger the amount to be financed, the more leverage the buyers will have in terms of rate demands. The Chinese are already talking about holding less dollar debt. Is this a precursor for a “Sino-Hold-Up” that would make John Dillinger proud? While there is still faith in the United States Treasury, that faith could have an unattractive price tag attached!

The implications for a rise in long term rates and strategies to minimize the long term interest cost do more than just add varying levels of incremental debt to our national balance sheet. Corporate bonds are usually priced on the basis of a “spread” over Treasuries. Higher Treasuries, regardless of the maturity, mean higher corporate borrowing costs unless spreads decrease; the exact opposite may happen in a rising rate environment. Weaker and smaller less-than-investment-grade companies can expect to be hit the hardest. In a worst case scenario, it is possible that no spread would be sufficient to compensate investors. To put hard numbers to this, in today’s market, B rated companies’ 8-10 year bonds are trading in the 14-15% range. Similar bonds of BB rated businesses are in the 10-12% range. Were ten year Treasury rates to rise 2.5-3% and spreads to remain constant, the cost of ten year bonds for B rated businesses would rise to 16.5-18% and BB rated bonds to 12.5-15%. Any upward movement in spreads would make rates higher, taking them to potentially prohibitive levels. Though such rates would not impact the cost of pre-existing bonds, they would be a severe impediment to the refinancing of maturing bonds and/or to finance growth or capital projects.

Dick Cheney was famous for saying that “deficits don’t matter.” Time will tell if he was right. What is for sure is that how deficits are financed can make a big difference!

Let’s Look Under the Banks’ Hood (Declining revenues may take care of that nasty compensation issue)

April 1, 2009
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A quick look at the first quarter ’09 Underwriting revenue statistics released today by DealLogic suggests that Underwriting may not be such a big source of increased profitability for banks. While total proceeds raised increased 27% from $1.344 billion to $1.707 billion, industry wide fee income was down 11.9%. The results were far worse for a number of the former industry leaders whose liquidity and stability are in question.The differences are, in part, explained by the fact that there was less activity in the higher margin areas of equity and less than investment grade debt issuance. More interesting is a look at the underwriting revenues of individual banks. Only Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland posted increases in underwriting revenue. Names like Citi, Goldman and BofA did not fair well at all. If Citi and BofA are going to have up first quarters, it won’t be from underwriting. Citi’s first quarter revenues were down 31.3% and B of A’s declined a whopping 56%. The mighty Goldman Sachs fell from third to tenth on the League Table and saw its underwriting revenues fall 45%, which was worse in total dollars and percentage terms than even Citi’s results.

The changes probably reflect a few things. First, the more stable banks, like JP Morgan and Deutsche, are likely to be the leaders going forward. While Citi and BofA were still marginally ahead of Deutsche, their precipitous declines point to an issuer abandoment trend that may not be quickly restored. Were it not for a few old relationships, which probably meant joint books on the right and conferred less real revenue than DealLogic thinks, they would likely be behind Deutsche. Second, were it not for major refinancing by investment grade names, who were taking advantage of market windows and proactively moving to protect their balance sheets, revenues would have been much worse for everyone. These event phenomenons, if true, may not be indicitive of great ongoing revenue streams. Third, Goldman’s fall off reveals just how dependent they really were on equity and less than investment grade issuance. In the last few years they evolved into a higher risk shop dependent on proprietary trading and investments together with higher margin and risk underwriting.

Perhaps the Obama administration need not worry about legislating bank compensation. Decining Underwriting and other bank revenues may do the job for them!!

Bank Underwriting Revenues First Quarter 2009 v 2008 may be found below:

The End of the Beginning or the Beginning of the End of Hedge Fund and Private Equity Economics?

March 30, 2009

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting article (“Calpers Tells Hedge Funds To Fix Terms-Or Else”) which details the California Public Employees’ Pension Fund’s (“Calpers”) attitude toward hedge fund and private equity compensation. Calpers is the nation’s biggest public pension fund. It has seen its hedge fund and private equity portfolios decimated this year along with its myriad other equity oriented investments. This is necessitating a reallocation of their portfolio which will mean substantial cuts in funding for “alternative investments” like hedge funds and private equity. Calpers’ reallocation issues has done more to put the fear of God into heathen PE and hedge fund managers than would any overzealous preacher! Loss of Calpers money can put a dent into any fund’s asset base and be a harbinger of incremental losses as other funds follow Calpers’ lead. Reallocation also gives Calpers extraordinary “muscle” to demand favorable terms from those with whom it chooses to invest. As the article points out, some of the modifications in terms that it is looking to achieve include:

• Reduction in annual fees (now 2-3% on avg.) and carry from 20% to something significantly less
• Recoupment of fees paid in good years to cover subsequent bad performance
• Managed accounts solely for Calpers to reduce the impact of redemptions by other investors
• Greater disclosure of assets and potential limits to leverage

Implementation will come primarily with the deployment of new money rather than amendments of existing fund investments. While it will take some time to implement the changes desired, they will have a chilling effect on the compensation and operations of many hedge funds and PE shops. Because so many institutional fund investors follow Calpers example it is likely that some fund managers will opt for dissolution or be forced to that decision by an inability to raise adequate capital. If Calpers succeeds, the face of alternative investments will look very different in the coming years. It also won’t help the value of homes in the Hampton’s or large apartments on Park Avenue.

It is quite possible that the fund business will follow the example of Major League Baseball. Top performers like Paulson and Soros may still be able to demand their terms because of their stellar track records in the recent downturn. Others will see a dramatic change in life and pay because they did not measure up in the clutch. There won’t be many Johan Santanas or Albert Pujols in the fund world. To make matters worse, Calpers is signaling that they have no intention of spending as freely as the Steinbrenners!

Spitzer for Treasury Secretary? Are You Joking Katrina?

March 25, 2009
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Recently Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Editor of the the Nation, has been suggesting that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner should be replaced by Elliot Spitzer. We know that she and her husband have been his friend since their days at Princeton but her suggestion is an embarrassment. Perhaps she is letting friendship cloud her judgment. Aside from the fact that Spitzer pleaded no contest to several of the crimes (Mann Act violations, illegal currency wire transfers, aiding and abetting prostitution etc.) that he often used to coerce his targets when he was New York Attorney General, he may have been the root cause of AIG’s demise. His actions, which forced out AIG’s long time CEO, Hank Greenberg, led to new management which took the company in the wrong direction. Greenberg’s successors had a difficult time maintaining his earnings record. They went for what they saw as easy money in credit default swaps and other esoteric insurance products. This was a large and real deviation from the way Greenberg ran the company. We all know the rest of the story.

The laws of unintended consequences really can be punishing when you act in a vindictive manner rather than as a result of a deliberate strategy.

As a secondary question, does Katrina expect an easy confirmation for her friend Elliot? Larry Summers was kept away from the Senate confirmation process because he spoke out about the gap between women and men in scientific fields of study. Imagine if he had broken multiple laws to hire $5,000 per hour hookers! At least Elliot paid his taxes.

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About author

Mr Thaler is currently the Managing Partner of Lieutenant Island Partners, an organization providing corporate finance advice and general consulting to corporations and not-for-profit organizations. Mr Thaler retired as Vice Chairman of Deutsche Bank Securities in early 2008. His background includes experience as an investment banker, senior manager, business builder, college professor, not for profit board chair and trustee. In his thirty plus years as an investment banker for Deutsche Bank and Lehman Brothers, he has been involved in numerous significant debt and equity financings, mergers & acquisitions, leverage buyouts, restructurings and cross border transactions. Of particular note, Mr Thaler has been one of the most active participants and strategic advisors to the homebuilding industry. In a period of significant turmoil and losses, he was one of the few active bankers to the industry who did not have either a loss or credit write down. He is currently advising several public builders on strategic matters and is an adjunct professor of finance at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Though he lives in New York, he is a life long Red Sox fan!