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

http://lieutenantislandview.com/2009/04/14/how-deficits-are-financed-does-matter/

https://lieutenantislandview.com/2009/03/23/brazil-shouldnt-count-on-meirelles-not-washington/


Ford and Large Homebuilders: Rumors of Their Demise is Greatly Exaggerated!

May 18, 2009
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To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of Ford and the major homebuilders is greatly exaggerated. While GM, Chrysler and a number of private builders are in or near bankruptcy, some of their larger public competitors are evidencing something even more significant than rising stock prices. They are raising significant amounts of capital!!

New capital is significant in many ways. It can allow companies to refinance maturing debt, reduce leverage and facilitate growth. Most important, it requires investor confidence. Raising new capital can only be accomplished when large groups of investors simultaneously commit to buy a company’s debt or equity securities. It is axiomatic that this is a formidable task if a company’s viability is in doubt. We are increasingly starting to see new capital commitments becoming the new “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”. They can signal that investors believe that a good company in a troubled industry should survive. The capital commitments often assure this inevitability and lead to post financing price increases from the abyss.

In the last few weeks we have seen the following financings for Ford and a group of large Builders:

Issuer Amount Security

Ford $1.6 bil equity
Toll $400mil bonds
Ryland $230mil bonds
Lennar $400mil bonds
Horton $450mil converts
Lennar $275mil equity

In the wake of these financings, including those who issued equity or converts that diluted existing shareholders, the newly issued debt and equity securities are trading at generally higher levels. While not necessarily a guarantee of long term success for the issuers, it has to be construed as a near term positive for both equity and debt investors. All have already registered gains in companies which the market sees as improved risks.

In a larger sense, the ability of companies in weaker industries to access the capital markets is a very positive indicator for a broad based recovery and further market advances. Six months ago Ford was a supplicant at TARP’s table. Today it is viewed as the long term winner in the US auto industry. As recently as three months ago, few would have made any bets on even one US homebuilder being able to access the capital markets for the foreseeable future. The foreseeable future is NOW!! Four builders have successfully financed and the securities issued are all trading at premiums.

Virtually all experts agree that the opening of the capital markets is essential to the end of the recession. The ability of Ford and the larger builders is a clear and significant harbinger of a major market opening. Like Mark Twain, the demise of the markets and the dire prospects for Ford and the large public builders was greatly exaggerated!

PS It is also very interesting to note that Citibank sole lead managed all of the builder financings. Their ability to execute such transactions also suggests that their demise as an underwriter may also be overstated.


Rules of Law Apply to Indentures as Well as Torture

May 3, 2009
2 Comments

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.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124113528027275219.html


Baseball Ticket Pricing- 3 Teams, 3 Strategies….1 Foul Ball!!

May 1, 2009
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Economic price theory suggests that optimal prices are achieved where supply and demand are evenly matched. The theory follows that, when there is an excess supply, prices should decline to a level which stimulates sufficient demand to consume the excess supply. Conversely, when supply is tight, prices should rise to a level where demand is satiated. When applied to ticket pricing by Major League Baseball teams, the task involves a measure of pre-season judgment to estimate demand at various price levels vs. a finite supply. The 2009 pricing policies of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Soc and New York Mets represent three very different approaches to the issue.

The Yankees took a course that bifurcated its ticket pricing between premium seats and non-premium seats. The premium seat policy involved per ticket prices of between $500-2,600. Their view was predicated on several key facts and assumptions:

• The quality of the Yankees’ teams makes their games a high demand event. To make sure of this, the Yankees spent heavily in the recent off-season on high priced pitchers and a slugger. The plan was to have great players to stimulate demand which would allow them to largely fill their stadium regardless of the opponent.
• The Yankees were building a new $1 billion plus stadium which they had to finance
• A finite number of premium seats with deluxe services would be attractive to corporations, hedge funds and New York’s plethora of big spending plutocrats
• The new Yankee Stadium, with reduced seating capacity and dramatically improved amenities, would enhance already strong demand
• The Yankees believed that “Scalper” prices at the old stadium were a strong reflection of the supply demand dynamic for premium Yankee tickets. Scalper pricing suggested a large divergence between prices paid for field level seats and those in less desirable locations. In many instances scalpers were attaining four figure prices per seat for top locations in the larger older stadium. A corollary was that scalper pricing pointed to an ability to raise non-premium prices, albeit at a lesser percentage increase than for premium seats (ie up 10-50% vs. 500%)
• By raising prices, the Yankees believed that they could disintermediate scalpers, achieve optimal pricing and generate significantly more revenue than in prior years.

The Yankees’ theory had merit. The scalpers’ pricing differential to face price, with 100%+ mark ups, suggested the potential for more efficient pricing. The challenge was making the right pricing decisions and factoring in the adverse economic developments occurring at the time of the Yankees annual early October exit from World Series contention.

The Red Sox’ approach to optimal pricing was dissimilar due to differing facts and strategies:

• They did not have a new stadium to finance and their payroll is significantly less than that of the Yankees and about $30 million less than it was in 2008
• The Red Sox have sold out every home game since mid-2003 despite raising prices annually to what, by 2008, were then the highest priced tickets in Major League Baseball.
• They did not have a significant base of large corporate season ticket holders. Rather, they rely on individuals, small businesses and ticket brokers for the majority of their season ticket sales. Such season ticket holders could be considered to be more economically sensitive than the likes of Citicorp, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns who the Yankees were counting on!
• Because the Red Sox played much deeper into the playoffs in 2008 (the Yankees did not make it at all), they were forced to start their 2009 ticket pricing deliberations at later date. This had the benefit of giving them more economic market input to influence their price thinking
• Scalper prices indicated that 50-100% premiums were being achieved in 2008. This might have provided impetus for a price increase, however, unlike the Yankees situation; there was no new stadium, no major increase in amenities nor a decrease in the supply of seats. More important, those scalper prices reflected pre-crash demand.

The Red Sox approach, which was rolled out in December, was to keep prices at 2008 levels. Flat prices were marketed as a fan friendly act in recognition of tough economic times. This was accompanied by a healthy dose of derision toward the Yankees’ pricing policy. The comparison was intended to help to make the Red Sox’ look like the Sisters of Mercy compared to their rivals in Gotham City. The goal was for goodwill and continued sell-outs despite hard times while laying the groundwork for future price rises when the economy improves.

The Mets’ strategy was the most innovative. Arguably it had to be because the team lacked both consistent on the field performance and a level of fan support equal to that of the Red Sox or Yankees. Other facts and issues were also important:

• Citi Field was replacing Shea Stadium. It is a beautiful new state of the art ballpark with somewhat reduced seating capacity than Shea Stadium and an even more dramatic increase in amenities than at the new Yankee Stadium
• Because of their consistently weaker on field performance, the Mets corporate season ticket support is much less than that of the Yankees. Their season ticket holder base more closely resembles that of the Red Sox with a high level of individuals and small businesses
• In recent years the Mets rarely sold out games at Shea Stadium except for a few games with the Yankees, serious contenders or with teams with special appeal like the Dodgers for old Brooklynites.
• Scalper prices saw minimal price premiums to face value and limited demand for many games other than with top teams or in big game situations

Given these facts of life, the Mets chose a 2009 pricing strategy to achieve a balance of supply and demand on a game by game basis rather than on a seasonal basis. This meant higher prices for Yankee and Dodger games than for the Pirates or the Marlins. Premium seats, with far greater amenities, saw prices double from 2008 levels while non-premium seats experienced lesser increases in the 10-20% range (justified by reduced capacity, greater non-premium amenities and a unique new stadium). The net result is that premium Met seats behind home plate for Yankees games now range from $200-500 per ticket, while they are only $100-300 for the Marlins. Prices for similar seats at Fenway Park range from $85-500 for every game. At Yankee Stadium, they cost from $500-2,600 per ticket.

Which team had the best 2009 micro economic strategy? The answer is not easy. The Mets are filling their stadium for games against teams like the Marlins (it helps that the “Fish” are playing well). The Red Sox continue to sell out regardless of the economy. What is easy to say is that the Yankees did not achieve optimal pricing. Empty premium seats abound. Scalper prices are below face value and the Yankees have just announced that premium season ticket holders will receive incremental free premium seats as a concession to over pricing.

Reasonable people are questioning whether the Yankees are compounding prior economic mistakes with these latest steps. Though the market has rejected their pricing strategy for premium seats, they are neither making refunds nor reducing the aggregate cash outlay for their customers. Rather they are just admitting that they have an excess inventory of premium tickets and giving away unsold high priced seats which they probably can’t sell. If the team’s on the field performance does not improve, it will be like a parent rewarding a child for eating much hated cauliflower by giving him more to eat!! This “great deal” is only being offered to premium season ticket holders who bought 82 game packages. It offers nothing to those who bought less thn 82 game premium packages except to dilute the value of their tickets as full season premium ticket holders unload their newly received tickets at discounted prices. Perhaps worse, from a public relations perspective, it does nothing for loyal fans who downgraded their seating locations when the per ticket prices of their season tickets went from $10-12,000 to $40-80,000. While I am not a behavioral economist like my scholarly namesake at the University of Chicago, my guess is that the policy will be less than well received by the majority of Yankee Season ticket holders (see attached article from the New York Times).

Why were the Red Sox and the Mets approaches more successful than the Yankees? Were the Yankees blind to economic realities or just completely insensitive to their fan base? Arguably the same answer works for all of the questions. While it would be nice to say that the Red Sox and Mets were more sagacious than the Yankees because they are owned by self made entrepreneurs rather than 2nd and 3rd generation arrogant rich boys, that is probably only a secondary factor. The real answer is that the Yankees’ revenue base dwarfs that of the Red Sox and Mets. Unlike the Red Sox and Mets, they can afford to be wrong in their pricing strategy. For this reason, they were willing to take a pricing risk for even more revenue. The Yankees do have the potential to inflict long term damage to their brand but it probably won’t happen. As in the past, they will spend ungodly amounts of money to improve the team and, at some point, do a high profile “mea culpa” with free tickets to poor kids and a cut in ticket prices for all. Then, as the economy improves, the price increases will return to obscene levels. Red Sox and Mets fans could be upset if this happens. They should not be. Rather, they should view this as like hitting the daily double. The Steinbrenners will have to admit to an egregious mistake and Yankee fans will have to admit that they supported a team that tried to screw them!!!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/sports/baseball/30sandomir.html?_r=1&em


PAC Giving-Down 6% is the New Up!

April 7, 2009
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Who’s kidding who? The fact that PAC contributions fell only 6% in the first two months of 2009 vs. 2007 is remarkable. Big banks which are receiving TARP funding have been virtually out of the PAC business. Add to this the facts that businesses are facing tight liquidity, major losses and an administration espousing squeaky clean policies on political giving. Down ONLY 6% is the new up! The Wall Street Journal and others can write all they want about how political giving is way down. Anything in the range of a 10% or less decline in PAC giving says to this author that PAC giving is actually deemed as an important business priority for the givers’ employers. Anyone who has been in any significant role at a major US corporation knows that PAC giving is voluntary in name only. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you never want to receive a call from your boss asking why you have not given to the firm’s PAC! If employers are making such calls today, they must really mean business.

Is the Wall Street Journal in cahoots with business to mask this story or do they just not get the joke?

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123905882020994793.html


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:

http://online.wsj.com/mdc/public/page/2_3106-FeesStocksBonds-Q12009.html


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.


If Goldman Returns its TARP Funds, Will Others Follow?

March 24, 2009
2 Comments

Given that Wall Street functions largely as a “Land of Lemmings” where one idea, regardless how good or bad, is usually criticised and then copied if it is seen as potentially beneficial to either personal pecuniary interests or corporate revenue generation. Right now, many on Wall Street believe that repaying TARP money certainly addresses the first point and could serve the second (or give a competitor a leg up if not followed). The article attached goes into detail on many of the implications of possible paybacks. One that seems to be missing is details on how many of the banks can raise the capital quickly. One needs only look to a bank’s loan book for the answer. To the extent that a bank can find a way not to “roll” a large revolver, use a technical covenant default to reduce exposure, not reapply toxic loan sales to new credits or generally accellerate a cutback in corporate lending (because that’s where the large loans are and Congress is not focusing on corporate liquidity), it can free up capital for repaying the government. Unfortunately, the casualty of this is a major reduction in corporate credit just when we need to help corporations make it through the downturn with available loan capital. In no small way is this part of the “unintended consequences” we addressed in our earlier piece on Congress’ compensation legislation. Even if the bill does not become law, the simple passage by the House has put the fear of God into banks. The really bad news is that the Lemmings of Wall Street may march their corporate clients into the sea to rid themselves of the yoke of TARP!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/business/24sorkin.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=if%20goldman%20returns%20aid,%20will%20others?&st=Search


From Whence Cometh Our Financial Mess?

March 22, 2009
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Beneficiaries of a Jesuit education learn early that logic and careful analysis are predicates to better judgments and conclusions. Jesuit pedagogues would also suggest that careful analysis and judgments are also necessary for appropriate corrective actions in addressing major problems. When it comes to our current national and global financial mess, blaming the usual suspects (George Bush, greedy CEOs, Wall Street, high executive compensation et al) or pandering to mass frustration may be cathartic but can never be confused with analysis or be a basis for corrective action.

In the coming days, we hope to address the nature of many of the issues that we believe contributed to our current economic troubles. We will endeavor to do so in a clear, simple and concise manner. Please do not be offended if we do not cover each issue in the first or second post. We believe that the issues fed on one another and are best examined seriatim rather than in one fell swoop.

What then were some of the most significant issues?

• The Growth of Leverage, Particularly in the Last Five Years
• Credit Default Insurance
• Mark to Market Rules
• CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) and CLOs (Collateralized Loan Obligations)
• Failure to Guarantee Fannie and Freddie Preferred Shares
• Letting Lehman Fail
• Delayed and Insufficient Action on AIG
• Treasury “Crying Fire in a Burning Building” to Pass TARP
• TARP Mismanagement

From these issues flowed incremental and very significant problems and issues including:

• Bank Failures and Capital Inadequacy in the Financial Sector
• AIG Insolvency
• Sub-prime Surge and Failings
• Mortgage Foreclosures
• Stock Market Meltdown
• Post-TARP AIG Compensation Levels

In the coming days we will deal with each issue and seek to expand our discussion by building on each issue and reflecting on subsequent problems that flowed from them. Stay tuned!!

(Note: While the author has long admired the discipline, training and learned nature of the Jesuit Order, he is neither a Roman Catholic nor the beneficiary of a Jesuit education.)


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! www.LieutenantIslandPartners.com

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