Saturday, November 28, 2009

Getting it wrong over coffee

Money management can be one of the most interesting careers in the world. At best it gives you lots of unstructured time to think about how the world really operates – and to make bets based on your hypotheses.  You get to conduct uncontrolled but real time experiments in the social sciences.

But never forget this is social science – not physics – and a little dogmatism about your rules or positions can result in getting it spectacularly wrong.

This was one of the more interesting places I have got it wrong lately – and so I thought I would write it up. It was also a surprising case of getting it wrong – because despite the analysis being totally stuffed I managed to scrape a (small) profit out of the trade.

The case involved three coffee companies (Diedrich, Green Mountain and Peet’s Coffee). I will explain what these companies do later – and how they are involved – but first I want to digress a little on the oddity of American coffee chains.

Starbucks failure in Australia

As an Australian the success of Starbucks (or Peet’s in San Francisco) puzzles me. Australia is blessed with a plethora of interesting and sometimes quirky, often very stylish cafes.  For those who are interested here is a photo of my local (Bronte) strip of coffee shops.  They are better than any strip I know of in New York, SFO or Chicago.  The coffee is better too – and that is widely commented on by visitors to our shores. 

It’s not that Australia is even a particularly coffee addicted country.  Per capital consumption is not huge by developed country standards and is lower than the United States.  We just have a better coffee scene.

It puzzles me why.  There are awful lot of things that the United States does (substantially) better than Australia so this is an oddity deserving some explanation. 

American coffee chains (particularly Starbucks but also some of the donut variety) have tried to break in and mostly failed.  Starbucks closed most of its stores last year after multi-million dollar losses.  They couldn’t cope with the Australian competition.  Which is odd because in most things the US is a far more competitive market than Australia – and US senior management tend to be more battle hardened than their Australian peers (see my piece on the use of American CEOs in the Australian context).  Its just the competition in cafes is far more fierce here.

I would love to be corrected – but I think the reason has to do with our wage structure.  American low-end wages are very low indeed whereas Australia has minimum wages at quite high levels.  Hiring unskilled labour to run a coffee shop according to a formula (and devoid of in-store entrepreneurial talent) works in America but does not work in Australia.  Also entrepreneurial talent in America has too many opportunities to waste itself in a coffee shop – whereas small-time competent entrepreneurs will open a small coffee shop in Australia.  [Maybe one of the good things about America is that it uses entrepreneurial talent well.]

Anyway this leads me to believe that some businesses that look bullet proof (running simple chains of shops which sell an addictive and brand loyal product) might actually be more vulnerable to quite strange social and economic trends than you would think.  Coffee shops look impregnable (and Peet’s typically trades with a 30 times price earnings ratio) but coffee shops can be beaten back by small entrepreneurial talent for reasons that are hard to articulate. 

The Green Mountain Keurig Cup

Another thing that coffee shops are vulnerable to is easy-to-make-at-home quality coffee.  Nescafe and other instant brands distribute a large amount of caffeine – as for that matter does the Coca-Cola company.  But against a well made espresso (diluted with frothy milk to taste) it just can’t cut it.  Our funds management business requires its morning coffee (which we buy from an excellent and entrepreneurial local cafe).  That said – American coffee is just not that special – and perhaps is more vulnerable than you think. 

One thing it is vulnerable to is the Keurig Cup (or K-cup).  K-cups are a plastic and coffee device you put in a special espresso machine and it makes you – instantly and with minimum mess and fuss – a very good espresso with very few traps for the unwary.  Its certainly a better drink than instant – and matches in quality a better cafe (though there are some tricks with milk frothing that the k-cup does not match).  

K-cups are a truly amazing business.  Once you have sold the machine you get to sell the cups (an addictive product no less) ad-infinitum with astonishingly fat margins.  And you don’t need to rent expensive real estate to do it.  This is like cigarettes – but with a growing market and without the litigation (and without actually killing your customers).

The first time I saw a k-cup was when a pretty young woman in a department store offered me a free coffee (brewed in a k-cup).  I noticed the razor-and-blades business model and determined that I did not want to be a sucker to that machine.  Alas – and to my endless shame as a stock picker – I did not even consider buying shares in the company which owned the k-cup business.  After all as a stock-picker you would really want to be on the receiving end of a razor-and-blade business selling a new addictive product.

That company is Green Mountain Coffee Roasters – and – since I first saw the machine the stock is up over five thousand percent.  A five thousand percent gain would – of course – somewhat have improved my finances and the finances of my clients...

The attraction of the k-cup business is not unnoticed by the market – Green Mountain trades at a PE ratio around fifty.  Still that is less than one times earnings on the price it was when I first saw a k-cup.

The k-cup license holders and Diedrich Coffee

Four companies have licenses to produce and sell k-cups.  Only one of those companies (Diedrich) is listed.  A license to sell k-cups is a license to share to some extent in Green Mountain’s very rapid growth however the terms with which you share are unknown.  As a default position I would expect that Green Mountain – the technology holder – would extract its pound-of-flesh for granting such a license and whilst a license holder might grow very fast you would not expect it to be outrageously profitable.  However – as I said the terms of the license are unknown and have never been published. If Green Mountain – in the infancy of the k-cup business – gave out the licenses on stupid terms then owning one of the four licenses to produce k-cups would be getting most of the benefit of being Green Mountain – but without even the expense of subsidizing the espresso machines or of hiring the pretty-young-woman sales people to sell new espresso machines.

It seemed however unlikely to me that Green Mountain – who have a truly fantastic product – would ever have signed a contract with Diedrich – or anyone else for that matter – which was truly unfavourable.  After all Green Mountain held the aces.

Moreover Diedrich has truly strange accounts.  It was an unsuccessful owner of a coffee shop chain (Gloria Jeans) which they sold off and the balance sheet has about 50 million in accumulated losses.  Sales were flying – but half those sales were back to Green Mountain (for whom they out manufactured product).  Moreover the accounts were truly strange in other ways (it was for instance very difficult to get a handle on tax expense).  There was a truly frightening article that appeared on Seeking Alpha which went through the accounts in great detail – and – if you took all the suggestions in that article at face value – then you would probably conclude that Diedrich was a fraud.  (The Seeking Alpha article has since been removed.)  

None of that stoped Diedrich being a truly explosive stock – indeed before I had even looked at the stock (and in about six months) it has gone from 21c to just over $30.  You don’t need too many of them in your lifetime…

Now this move looked truly bizarre given (a) the fact that it did not even own the k-cup technology and (b) the bizarre accounting as outlined in the Seeking Alpha article. 

I thought (possibly incorrectly) that Diedrich was probably a stock-promote rather than a business as per the suggestion in the Seeking Alpha article – but I did not bother to do any of the work to prove or disprove that case.  That work came later.

The Seeking Alpha article was anonymous and hard to verify (as discussed below).  

The danger of shorting frauds

The reason I did not do any of the work to confirm or deny the Seeking Alpha article was that shorting frauds (especially well publicised frauds) is possibly the most dangerous thing you can do on Wall Street.  Take for example a fraudulent oil company in Africa – but one that really has some oil.  The company has oil – so it can show flows to visiting analysts.  It has pictures and local politicians are excited to hob-nob with the management.  But there is no real way of telling whether they have 1 million barrels or 10 million barrels.  They may have 3 million barrels (which would be valuable – but not earth shattering) but tell the market they have 20 million barrels.  There really are very few ways to tell – and if they are determined they can exaggerate at will.  Moreover suppose you have worked it out (or at least have suspicions) – it doesn’t help you.  If someone is going to fake the existence of 17 million barrels of oil there is not much that stops them from faking the existence of 170 million barrels of oil.  If you are short and they “announced” a 100 million barrels (or a few trillion cubic feet of gas) and the market believes them then you are stuffed.  The stock could go for a monstrous run – and you will be forced to cover at a shocking loss. 

The problem with shorting frauds is that there is nothing to keep the fraud grounded – and hence there is nothing to limit your losses.  If you short a real company (say Dell) and Dell sells less computers than it anticipated it will tell the market.  The stock will probably go down.  If it sells more computers than anticipated at better margins the stock will go up.  But it is vanishingly unlikely to sell ten times as many computers as anticipated.  You can be short and whilst you might lose money if you are wrong you will not do serious damage.  Frauds – because there is nothing to keep the claims grounded – can cost you an enormous amount as a short.

There was a possibility that Diedrich was a fraud – but it was a high-growth with a substantial short interest.  There was simply no way that I was going to short it because the potential losses looked vast.  Given that I did not bother to fact-check the Seeking Alpha article.

The rare safe time to short a fraud

There is only one time that it is relatively safe to short a fraud – and that is when a real company is suckered into buying it.  That happens – and the cannon-example was when Mattel purchased The Learning Company.

The Learning Company (TLC) was (and remains) a children’s educational game software maker.  It has real games and real sales.  In that sense it was similar to my African oil company with a few million barrels.  It however had accounts which were peculiar – and several short sellers were convinced it was mostly fraudulent.  [I had never heard of the company so I cannot vouch for their views.] 

Eventually Mattel purchased TLC.  The purchase was made from weakness.  Mattel used to have a great franchise in toys for young boys (think Matchbox cars).  There is simply no way I could interest my nine year old in Matchbox cars anymore – not when they have a Playstation or a Wii.  Boys toys were dead and computer games killed them. 

Mattel was desperate to join the computer game revolution – and it paid a fortune for what really was a dodgy property.  The losses were in the billions.  Wikipedia tells the story quite well.  It was one of the worst acquisitions ever on Wall Street – and not only did it cost Mattel over 3.5 billion (mostly in stock) but it revealed the underlying (and fundamentally incurable) weakness in Mattel’s business.   It also cost the CEO (Jill Barad) her job.  Jill made her career promoting and marketing Barbie dolls and her claim to fame was that she was brilliant – possibly amongst the best ever – at marketing bimbos.  (A company insider once noted to me that that included herself.)  Jill was however absolutely useless at assessing a computer game company.  [Personally though I think she should have been kept on as CEO but limited to Barbie…  She really did deserve that job and did it well.] 

A short seller’s dream is when a real company – preferably one which is a little dopey and in an old industry (matchbox cars as compared to computer games) buys something hot, sexy and fundamentally dodgy. 

Peet’s bids for Diedrich

I thought I had my own repeat of Mattel and The Learning Company.  Peet’s – a well run but simple coffee chain around the Bay Area bid cash (debt funded) and stock to buy Diedrich.  Ah – here it was – a simple company with a simple model – whose margins seemed to be declining (for reasons I have not fully identified) which bids for a well promoted company with massively complex (and potentially misleading) accounts. 

To say I was excited is understating it.  This is precisely the sort of thing that excites a short seller.  At worst what would happen was that Peet’s – a company with less than 200 coffee shops (and owning only the brand and fittings) would have roughly 140 million debt and a business (Diedrich) that – depending on the contract with Green Mountain – might not be worth very much at all. 

In the bad-case Peet’s stock – trading at 30 times earnings – could lose 80 percent of its value.  [That was what happened to Mattel.]

So I did some work.  I went back to the Seeking Alpha article and tried to verify every claim in it.  Alas I could not.  There were a few simple (and innocent) explanations for some of the red-flags highlighted in the Seeking Alpha article.  However with respect to some of the claims in the article I had to acknowledge that the author had a point.  He wasn’t right with respect to everything – but he was right on some points.  Diedrich’s accounts were (and still are) pretty aggressively stated.

I shorted some Peet’s.  Not a lot – but maybe a third of the final position I hoped to have.  I intended to do a little more work (especially as the debt covenants were published).  Besides – in the Mattel case there were many quarters as The Learning Company disaster unfolded.  There were plenty of opportunities for a short seller in Mattel to test their thesis on the way down.  This was a small position – but as it unfolded I hoped to make it a big position. 

Now the observant will notice there is a missing detail.  I still do not know the terms of the contract between Green Mountain and Diedrich.  If the terms are highly favourable to Diedrich then shorting Diedrich (or the new owner of Diedrich) is spectacularly misguided.  In that case Diedrich is just a cheap way into Green Mountain’s (fantastic) business.

Not knowing the terms of that contract was the key weakness in all of my analysis.  And I knew it. 

Peet’s had a conference call when they announced the purchase.  They indicated that the terms of the contract were acceptable but they refused to detail what they were.  Paraphrasing Mandy Rice Davies “well they would say that wouldn’t they”. 

What I was looking for in future quarters (as a guide to increasing the position) was evidence that the Green Mountain contract was favourable to Green Mountain. 

Well I was wrong

I started this by stating that most of the analysis was wrong.  And it was – in a very specific way.  My biggest concern was always the contract Green Mountain had with Diedrich.  And only one party outside Diedrich knows that contract and understands its economics intimately.  That is Green Mountain. 

And they proved me wrong.  Green Mountain overbid Peet’s for Diedrich - $30 per share – all cash. 

Oops – now I know I am wrong.  Green Mountain wants to bring that contract back in house.  They want it in-house for about a quarter of a billion dollars in cash!  Remember ultimately all that Diedrich has is a few tax losses, a small manufacturing facility for K-cups, a couple of second-rate coffee brands and THAT CONTRACT. 

Peet’s overbid – bidding $32 a share ($20 in cash the rest in stock).  Green Mountain upped its bid to $32 per share ($265 million) all cash.  Remember this stock was trading earlier this year under 25 cents!  This is one hell-of-a-valuable contract.

Needless to say events have shown I was wrong about Diedrich with respect to the only thing that mattered (the worth of the k-cup contract with Green Mountain).  I covered my short and thanked luck that it was not (much) worse.

Of course this bidding war drove down the value of Peet’s stock.  So I was wrong and made a small profit.

Money management – lucky or smart?

Given I was wrong I can hardly say I was smart.  But Peet’s was not a bad candidate for a short.  It has a very thin balance sheet (almost all profits have been used to buy back stock).  It does not own the sites of its stores.  It was paying cash so it was going to incur debt with only intangible assets (its brand really) to back that debt.  And it had a 30 PE. 

Given all of that I could be wrong in lots of ways but still make a profit. 

But I should not get carried away.  I was wrong – proven wrong – and the profit is nice but it shouldn’t be used to ignore the fact that my hypothesis was simply inconsistent with observation.

Back to scratching around (often fruitlessly) for things that might make money.

 

 

John

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ides of March and the Fed exit strategy

The dollar bears (and inflation mongers) are all over the blogosphere and press at the moment. It is almost a consensus that the US dollar is doomed and that gold is a great investment. Sure there are doubters – but few are as vocal as Paul Krugman who refers to inflation as the phantom menace.

Anyway I thought I would have a brief analytical foray.

Over this crisis the Federal Reserve increased the money supply by literally trillions of dollars and several hundred percent. In an ordinary world this would have caused very rapid inflation – but suffice to say that this is still not an ordinary world. Short term interest rates are stuck at zero and medium term rates are pinned very close to zero. People (and financial institutions) are willing to hold (and not spend) inordinate amounts of money. Liquidity preference is very high and it has absorbed all the extra money the Fed has printed.

Obviously some day liquidity preference will wane (though Japan tells us that day might be very far into the future). When the liquidity preference has waned all that money that was printed will be excess and might turn into inflation.  The Fed will need an exit strategy. Inflation hawks are already worried that inflation is inevitable. Gold is a favoured investment of many – including some hedge fund managers who I think have very fine minds.

Ok – I think the inflation hawks are wrong and I think gold will be a lousy investment. But I need to explain why.

The Fed printed money to buy lots of riskier assets. Often these were assets owned by banks and the banks borrowed the cash from the Fed secured by these assets. About a trillion of the assets were qualifying mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. Whatever, there is a huge increase in money supply (liabilities of the Federal Reserve) offset by an equally huge increase in assets held by the Federal Reserve.

The Fed has an exit strategy – a natural exit strategy. When people’s liquidity preference wanes they will want to hold risk-assets rather than cash. And the Fed owns trillions of dollars of risk assets. The exit strategy is simply to sell those risk assets and take back (and destroy) the cash that they created during the ciris.

The right speed to do this is also – in some sense – naturally determined. The right speed is at the speed the general public wants to hold mortgages and other risk assets again.

Now all of this presupposes something utterly critical. It presupposes that the assets on the Federal Reserve balance sheet (loans to banks secured by risk assets, Fannie and Freddie mortgages and paper) are good. If the assets held by the Federal Reserve are worthless then the Fed cannot use those assets to buy back the excess money supply precisely because those assets were a wipe-out.

The Fed has an exit strategy – but only if the asset side of its balance sheet is solid.

And this brings us back to the middle of March when the system was collapsing around us. The Fed was the only source of liquidity – they were lending to big banks secured by almost anything the big banks had unencumbered. They even lent to big banks secured by (of all things) recreational boat loans.

If everyone was insolvent then those loans to banks will be no good. The Fed will have no capacity to withdraw the excessive money supply because the asset side of their balance sheet will be stuffed.

However if the crisis was a liquidity crisis and not a solvency crisis then, come the time to exit quantitative easing, the Fed will have a sufficient balance sheet to do its part.

The determining factor as to whether the end game here is inflation is whether March was a liquidity or solvency crisis.

This blog has been consistent. I do not believe the US banking system was insolvent in March. I never did believe it. And I thus believe the Fed has an exit strategy. Given that belief I think that gold is a lousy investment from here (though thankfully I have not been short it).

More generally I think there are serious problems with believing both of the following:

(a) the financial crisis was essentially a solvency crisis – the banks were mass insolvent in March and a bailout was inevitably going to impose very large long term costs and

(b) that inflation is not a large risk.

However Paul Krugman seems to believe both these things, and he has a Nobel Prize in economics and is clearly smarter than me. So please take all of this with a grain of salt.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The missing details: Bronte Beach edition

Saturday afternoon and I had volunteer lifesaving duty.  My (broken) collarbone is knitted enough to be able to go in for a swim in modest surf – but if there were a difficult rescue I would pass the duty onto someone else.  Really I am a pair of eyes – the job is to watch and assess – not to make a hero of myself.

I was sitting chatting with Rod, a fellow lifesaver at the North end of the beach watching quite a large crowd and getting modestly annoyed when the (fibreglass) board riders were sailing too close (or into) the flagged bathing area.  (Swimmer’s heads tend to come off badly when hit with a fibreglass surf board.) 

At the very south end of the beach is a rip (a current that goes out to sea) and some lifesavers were standing around chatting around the rip.  This is the same rip where the Muslim men were rescued last November

There was someone swimming in the rip – with quite good – even stylish strokes.  But he was getting nowhere.  Rod and I were debating whether he was even likely to get into trouble.  The stroke was – as I said – strong – but given the current what he was doing was futile.  We watched for about a minute when I decided to walk down the other end of the beach and see what the other lifesavers wanted to do about it.  I was not worried.

As I walked the guy stopped swimming – just gave up – and started to drift out to sea at about 1.5 metres (5 feet) per second.  I got to the lifesavers about the time I thought it was actually going to be necessary to go in and get the guy – but the professional lifeguard on the beach had run down, got a rescue board and was already on his way to effect the rescue.  These are the same lifeguards from the TV series

The victim was still treading water, the surf was not rough – and I suspect if he knew what he was doing (that is knew to swim across the current) he could have rescued himself.  But I was still a little peeved at myself for missing the easiest of board rescues (and the kudos/self congratulations that would go along with it).

Ex post we realised there were a few missing details:

First – the lifesavers at the South end of the beach simply did not notice the guy caught in the rip.  Maybe they noticed his fine swimming stroke and assumed he was not a “customer”.  Maybe they were looking at pretty women in bikinis.  Maybe they were just preoccupied.  Whatever – they did not see.

Second – the customer was from Bavaria.  He was a tourist.  He had once swum competitively (hence the stylish swimming stroke) but he had never swum in the surf.  He simply did not understand his predicament and he had no idea how to get out of it.

Third – the customer was wearing cut-off cotton jeans – not a nylon swimming costume.  That makes it just so much harder – and an amazing proportion of our rescues are of people who go in fully or partially clothed.  [The fully clothed are often Muslims.]

Fourth – the customer had had a couple of beers.

If I had known these four details I would not have walked to the other end of the beach – I would have run as fast as I could.  Those details – none of which were readily apparent – changes the interpretation of the guy in a rip from “interesting and slightly comic” to “life-and-death”. 

The existence of a problem was obvious to me – and I (incorrectly) presumed that it was similarly obvious to my fellow lifesavers.  I just assumed because I had noticed everyone had noticed – and hence I acted almost apathetically to the danger.  Moreover I assumed away my four missing details because the customer had a fine swimming stroke which created an illusion that all was under control. 

That is I suspect a very human mistake…

 

John

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The media market has a conservative bias

Here is a sequence of numbers to bring tears of joy to a stockholder and tears of rage to a liberal pundit.* 

197

262

211

194

249

275

282

284

289

337

330

313

379

428

429

434

495

It’s the quarterly operating profit of the cable network programming for News Corp in millions of dollars as reported since September 2005.  It’s not all Fox News – but Fox News is the main driver.

I love reading Talking Points Memo, the Daily Kos, Paul Krugman and Brad Delong – but its quite clear that the mass audience and the dollars are elsewhere. 

And whilst there are some nice new liberal media sites (including many I read) and I think people like Josh Marshall have reinvented part of American journalism that is all a delusion.  The media market has a conservative bias. 

Just to make the point further I have met a few media barons – including briefly the Sun King himself.  My impression of media barons is that whilst they have political views (often quite strong ones) there real bias is to things that are profitable.  Rupert is in my home town this week (Sydney) and he is personally expressing views associated with asylum seekers in Australia that are associated with the left of Australian politics.  They are not views expressed in his local newspapers

Therein is the rub.  He is quite happy to have his newspapers express views contrary to his own when it sells papers.  The media market determines media bias – and – as the above string of numbers show – the media market has a conservative bias and that bias is getting stronger.  Media bias follows the money-making bias of media owners.  People who proclaim liberal media bias are just not following the dollars.

I hope – sincerely hope – that Josh Marshall, Markos Moulitsas and others of the new media liberal elite can make a go of it.  But the conservative side generates operating profits of half a billion per quarter and that gives them a longevity (and power) that the new media – for all its obvious intelligence – can only watch in gob-smacked wonder. 

 

 

John

 

*In this case I am both a liberal pundit and a stockholder.  I don’t know whether to cry or to cry. 

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fannie Mae’s results – oh, and what if Bank of America reported the same way…

There have been some mathematical corrections to this post discussed in the comments. My pencil notes had the numbers right. By the time I got to writing it out errors had entered. Sorry.

Fannie Mae just put out awful looking results based primarily on massive (and increasing) credit loss provisions. Indeed their provisions this quarter were the largest thus far in the cycle.

Its worth looking a little closer because – like it or not – all Americans are owners of Fannie – both the downside (their current book) and the upside (if any) through taxpayer ownership of the common stock.

The nature of credit loss provisions

Each quarter almost every financial institution takes some charges when loans they have made settle at less than 100c in the dollar. At the moment charge-offs are at historic highs.

Every quarter a company makes an estimate of future losses – a “provision” if you will.

Provisions by definition are estimates – whereas charge-offs are real and mostly final.

The difference between provisions and charge-offs goes to a “reserve for future losses” or more commonly just “reserves”.

Most financial institutions are taking more provisions than charge-offs – in other words they are building reserves. This is necessary because there are a lot of delinquencies and a lot of loans in the foreclosure process and – just frankly – a lot of loans that common sense tells you will end in charge-off.

Most institutions build reserves relatively slowly. Bank of America for instance – in broad numbers – has had 13 billion of provisions per quarter for the last three quarters and charge-offs of 6,8 and 9 billion respectively. If the charge-offs skyrocket (say to 20 billion) at bank of America then it will find itself under-reserved – and will wind up having to report very big losses. However if charge-offs slowly level off around 13 billion per quarter then BofA will – ex-post – look OK.

The honest answer in the case of BofA is that we really do not know where charge-offs will wind up but we can make educated guesses. In the last conference call BofA thought charge-offs would peak about the first quarter of 2010. If they are right then their current reserving is right and BofA is probably a steal as a stock right now. If however charge-offs continue to rise for another 18 months peaking out at say $35 billion per quarter then BofA will need to be recapitalised further and may wind up as government property.

I am inclined to think that BofA’s current educated guess (charge-offs peaking early next year) is a little optimistic – but not very optimistic and I am happily long Bank of America common shares. This is – as I stated – an educated guess. Other people I respect have different educated guesses. The (very smart) Chris Whalen has a completely different view arguing (amongst other things) that the liabilities for fraudulently sold securitisations at Countrywide and Merrill will produce losses large enough to render BofA insolvent. I think he is spectacularly wrong – but difference of opinion makes a market.

In BofA’s case 13 billion per quarter is sort of a magic number because it happens to approximate the pre-tax, pre-provision profitability of the bank. Provided actual end charge-offs remain around or below 13 billion per quarter BofA will be able to earn its way of its mess. If charge-offs go to 25 billion per quarter they can’t earn their way out – and hence just the implicit government guarantee they currently have will not be enough to save them.

I note that current charge-offs are comfortably within the 13 billion per quarter so all is well for the moment. As to the future – all we can take are educated guesses. And that is all bank provisioning is. In BofA’s case the 13 billion (plus or minus a couple) of provisions taken each quarter seems a little optimistic to me – and you can understand why when the gun is pointed at the executives head they manage to (miraculously) pick their provisions to roughly match their pre-tax, pre-provision profit. But as I have noted I think the provisions in BofA’s case are only slightly optimistic – and the end charge-offs won’t go very far above 13 billion per quarter.

Analysing the Fannie Mae result in this light

Fannie Mae – as stated - took an enormous loss this quarter. The key to this loss was a credit charge of $22 billion. This credit charge can be broken into two broad categories – which are (a) the actual charge-offs taken, (b) the addition to reserves.

Like BofA, Fannie (and Freddie and just about everyone esle) needs large reserves because – frankly losses and delinquency are still getting worse. The amount you need to add to reserves is an estimate. If your reserves are large enough (which doesn’t seem to be the case in any financial institution I look at outside the GSEs) then you don’t need to add and you might even be able to run the reserves down a little.

In Fannie’s case this quarter there is one more thing complicating the reserves versus charge-offs picture. Fannie changed the way it accounts for one of its loan modification programs (the “Home Affordable Modification Program” or the HAMP) such that when loans are acquired from securitisation trusts for modification they are written down to market. This loss (which Fannie calls a “loss on acquisition”) is not a final loss (as per a normal charge-off) but rather an estimate of the future charge-offs they would take on those loans.

So lets break up the credit charge.

The provision for credit charges was 21.96 billion – which I will round to 22.0 billion – given that the nearest 100 million seems close enough. The charge offs were 10.9 billion (see table 10 in the 10Q). Note 3 to that table tells us that of that 10.9 billion 7.7 billion came from the “loss on acquisition” on the HAMP. The actual loans that were charged-off (final) were 3.2 billion. They were probably a bit higher because there were some HAMP charges taken last quarter and maybe some were finalised this quarter.

But nonetheless the way to think about this is that final losses this quarter were 2.2 billion. Provision for future losses (HAMP losses and provision build) were 19.8 billion. Similar ratios have applied every quarter since Fannie Mae went into conservatorship.

Now I am going to make the obvious point. Bank of America provides roughly 1.5 to 2 times its charge-offs each quarter. Fannie Mae provides 7 times (and has been closer to 10 times in past quarters).

If Bank of America were to provide at the same rate its quarterly losses would be 50-80 billion and it would be completely bereft of capital – it would be totally cactus. It would be – like Fannie Mae – a zombie government property.

What I think is going on…

I think what is going on here is a different standard for Bank of America. And for Wells Fargo. And for Citigroup. And for PNC and for every other major bank in America. There is also a different standard for Goldman Sachs. That standard is different to Fannie Mae. BofA (like everyone else) gets to choose its reserving ratios – and to be a little optimistic. Fannie Mae chooses ratios that are so-off-the-scale high that it is different.

Remember provision build is an estimate not a fact – and Fannie is estimating extraordinarily bearishly and Bank of America’s estimates are slightly generous. But regulators are controlling Fannie in such a way that keeps it down. They are allowing Bank of America to act as if all is well whilst Fannie Mae appears to be a complete zombie. Which I think corresponds roughly to the new policymaker consensus that what is good for big banks is good for America.

It is clear why BofA has chosen the 13 billion of provisions per quarter – which is that it roughly corresponds to their pre-tax pre-provision income. Moreover – in my view the 13 billion per quarter is not far wrong so the decision is defensible.

It is not clear why Fannie has chosen to reserve quite so aggressively. My guess is that there is no active conspiracy – but the pressure to make extraordinary provisions at Fannie is very high for a variety of non-commercial reasons. These provisions are defensible only if you believe the housing market gets substantially worse from here. That seems to belie the evidence on the ground – at least for now. Housing markets in the core bubble states have clearly stopped deteriorating. Current provisions (including mark to market provisions on the HAMP) are now 6 years current charge-offs. They are only 18 months or so at most banks including BofA.

Am I being too harsh?

Is it too harsh to apply the same provision to charge-off ratio to Bank of America as it is to apply it to Fannie Mae? Well if the credit was deteriorating faster at Fannie that BofA I would be too harsh. But if the credit were deteriorating faster at BofA then I would be too generous. The best test of that is non-performing loans.

At year end BofA non-performing loans were 18.2 billion. They were 31.9 billion by the end of the third quarter – a rise of 75 percent.

Fannie Mae NPLs were 111.8 billion at the end of the year (20.4 on balance sheet, 98.4 off balance sheet). They were 197.4 billion at the end of the third quarter – a rise of 76 percent.

75 percent versus 76 percent – I will call that a wash.

Indeed almost however I cut it the situation is getting worse for BofA at roughly the same rate as it is for Fannie Mae.

Except for one thing. The government wants BofA alive. Lots of people want Fannie Mae dead.

My views

Bank of America survives now but for the good grace of the quasi-government guarantee. So do all banks. But Bank of America is – in my view (a view open for dispute) ultimately solvent. Its provisions are optimistic – but not (in my view) excessively so. If the cash losses per quarter rise to (say) 30 billion dollars then BofA will die and will cost the taxpayers a lot of money. I think that is unlikely but it is not impossible. Provision additions are always just an educated guess – not a science.

If the same standard were applied to Fannie Mae as bank of America Fannie would still have needed government assistance. It started with less capital and more levered than BofA. But the position would not look anything like as bad as it does.

You can of course interpret this to suggest that the Fannie Mae standard should be applied to BofA – and indeed to the rest of the financial system. You would (in my educated guess) be wrong. But I would have little ground to dispute it.

Disclosure: Long preference shares of the GSEs, long Bank of America. Could be wrong about both.

General disclaimer

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Hempton. Mr. Hempton may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Hempton's recommendations. The commentary in this blog in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. In fact, it should not be relied upon in making investment decisions, ever. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.  In particular this blog is not directed for investment purposes at US Persons.