Thursday, April 23, 2015

Navinder Singh Sarao: Our spoofing hero

This is a comment on the story rampant in the press about a British Man causing the US "flash crash". If you are not familiar this is as good a background as needed.

It took me a while to get my head around just how ludicrous the assertion that a kid (Navinder Singh Sarao) trading a few thousand e-mini contracts caused the "flash crash" was. He did this every day for a few hundred days - and almost every day there was no flash crash. Then there was a flash crash - so ergo - a kid in his basement caused it.

He did this by "spoofing" which is an illegal form of market manipulation. If you need a summary beyond what I give here Matt Levine provides a fairly good summary.


Spoofing - so what is it? Its placing a bunch of (say) sell orders a little above market and a smaller buy order a little below market.

What then happens is that "front running computers" see the multitude of sell orders and assume they are real. They then decide to sell some to get in front of some real selling. The real buy order gets executed.

Now our spoofer is long. They will want to sell at some stage - so they reverse the process. They place a lot of buy orders a little below market and a smaller sell order they want executed - and the front running computer crosses the spread.

The spoofer thus earns the spread, they do this repeatedly and the loser is front running computers. All these trades are placed for mere milliseconds so spoofing is one computer ripping another computer off. Real people don't get fooled by spoofers because the spoofed trades are around for milliseconds.

Making spoofing illegal thus increases the profits of front running computers - meaning more front running computers.

Now alas when I buy a real order in market I have to pay my due to the front running computers - which comes at a real cost to me - a real investor - and to my clients. This is a real cost to real investment in the capital market.

I would prefer the front running computers go away - and the best way for that to happen is to allow spoofing. Spoofing makes the world unsafe for front-running high frequency traders.


So what have the regulators done. They have arrested a kid who is spoofing the market with a few thousand e-mini contracts and hence taken money from the front-running computers whose real goal is to rip you (real investors) off. They have made the world safe for the conventional high-frequency traders at a real cost to the investing public.

They were helped out by an industry whistle-blower.

In other words they did it with the help of an industry participant: someone who runs the front-running computers designed to rip-you off.

The Department of Justice has been played into bringing the full force of the US legal system onto an irrelevant trader - just to make the world safer for the real rip-off merchants.

And their case looks plain silly.

As for the kid - Navinder Singh Sarao - he isn't a criminal. He is a hero. He is the sort of guy who makes the market safe for ordinary investors.

Here is to hoping the English judge treats the extradition request with the contempt it deserves.


Post script: This post caused some debate in our office. Two objections were raised.

(a). There may be some real investors who use algorithms to "just get the trade done". There is an algorithm like that available on interactive brokers. A "just get it done" algorithm may also front-run a spoofer.

(b). If you allow spoofing you would wind up with enormous quantities of it. It would get to the point where maybe 99.9 percent of offers in the market - especially ones just outside the money - would be spoofs. This could be solved with a very small fee - reflecting costs - for placing an order. The fee would probably need to be less than 1c per $100,000.

Neither of these objections however undo the main argument which is

(a). Spoofing makes profits at the expense of front-running computers.

(b). It thus will reduce the number of front-running computers.

(c). Front running computers make profits at the expense of real investors including our clients.

(d). Therefore spoofing helps my clients and I like it.

Navinder Singh Sarao really is a hero.


PPS.Navinder Singh Sarao is a kid because he operates out of his mum's basement. He was really in his 30s - but that is still a lot younger than me.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

One more Bank of the Internet advertisement

This one needs no explanation at all:

It says: "New draft pick wants to buy a luxury home. BOFI Federal Bank can do that".


Another Bank of the Internet advertisement

These advertisements are pitched at mortgage brokers and they have lots of jargon. But this advert is priceless...

It says "Professional fighter wants to buy an estate with a mixed martial arts studio and needs an asset depletion income qualification loan. BOFI Federal Bank can do that."

So what is an "asset depletion loan"?

Here is a fairly standard explanation from a the Chicago Tribune:

Asset depletion. Some high-net-worth borrowers don't show enough adjusted gross income on their tax returns to qualify. With an asset depletion loan, the lender factors the borrower's liquid assets into the income calculation. The asset amount, less the down payment, is amortized over 30 years or until the borrower reaches age 85, whichever comes first, just as if the money were spent during that time.
So the fighter here does not have enough verified income to qualify - and in this context BOFI are happy to impute an income to the forthcoming mixed martial arts studio.

Good luck with that. I am not sure how good the secondary market is in failed mixed martial arts studios.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

So what exactly do you get with Bank of the Internet stock?

There are only three banks in America who have

(a) a market capitalisation greater than $1 billion.
(b) a price to tangible book greater than three, and
(c) a price to historic earnings greater than twenty.

These are the most expensive banks in America. The raw data set is here (courtesy Capital IQ).

When you pay absolute top-dollar for a bank stock you need to be getting something special - either a better franchise, better management or the like. There has to be something that sets your bank apart from the run-of-the-mill franchises.

Otherwise - dear shareholders - your investment lies somewhere in the range between mere overpayment and being outright ripped off.

Bank of the Internet (NASDAQ:BOFI) is one of the three highest priced banks in America.

There is a "story" about what you are getting - a high growth ultra-low cost internet franchise.

But this blog post is not about the "story" - its about the reality. The reality is you are getting a 2005-style jumbo mortgage lender (with other odd high risk loans) funded primarily by high cost brokered deposit.

These are some examples from BofI's correspondent websites to explain what the really do. This one describes BofI as home for "portfolio Niche Jumbo Lending".

The money quote: "The majority of our loans are approved with either a credit or collateral exception".

In other words this is an exception lender. The exceptions are to their stated underwriting standards.

And because it lends by exception you are critically dependent on who is approving the exception loans.

Chasing through LinkedIn and other sources it appears that many of the people who approve the exceptions are from IndyMac and Thornburg Mortgage - both bankrupt jumbo mortgage lenders.

Whatever: here are a few more adverts for BofI Federal Bank - these are adverts distributed to mortgage brokers:

For those who don't read the pictures it says "Self employed artist wants to buy a studio in New York. BOFI Federal Bank can do that."

The pic is of an exceptional artist. He throws pain and there is none on his clothes. And there is more in this advert:

If you are a self-employed artist I guess they offer you an "exception".

Indeed they make a thing of it. Exception lending is - to quote the advert - an "art". And following LinkedIn we can see the artists come from IndyMac and Thornburg Mortgage...


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Poor Charlie's Counterattack

Charlie Munger - at the last annual meeting of the Daily Journal Corporation - where Charlie is Chairman - said some pithy stuff about Valeant (and implicitly the CEO J Micheal Pearson). To quote:
Valeant is like ITT and Harold Geneen come back to life, only the guy is worse this time.
Now ITT was not by any stretch the worst of the 1960-70s conglomerates. If Charlie had compared Valeant to (say) Ling-Temco-Vought that would have been a much nastier statement.

But Harold Geneen's monster went from one of the most feared corporations in the world to a sort-of-pathetic has-been. It was rising interest rates and falling stock prices that did him in - although not to the point of bankruptcy.

But before Geneen was done in there was a book written about ITT - The Sovereign State of ITT. One of my staff members owns it - and I have only just got to it.

The book covers mostly left-wing conspiracy stuff about dirty deals done with the Nixon Administration. [They probably all happened - Nixon was like that.]

Whatever - the accounting section tells us that Charlie's comparison was apt. These quotes are extracted from pages 144-7:
As each new acquisition was swallowed up by the ITT whale, so the separate characteristics that had been made clear in its balance sheet went out of sight as completely as Jonah. The separate profits and losses of each industry —whether hotels, rented cars, or house-building—were no longer discernible in the consolidated balance sheet, and the breakdown of sales showed only the most generalized headings: "Defense and Space Programs" or "Consumer Services." The concoction of the corporate accounts thus became a challenge to the art of a master accountant; the profits and losses could be quietly set off against each other without anyone knowing...
Moreover, the multinationality of ITT made it exceptionally able to defend itself against taxation, like a nomadic millionaire. It was true that it was, at the base, an American company, responsible to American shareholders and subject to inspection and questioning from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service; but that control was diminished by ITT’s global scope. Soon after he became president, [Harold] Geneen held a special conference of his top lawyers and accountants, to discuss how ITT could best make use of the tax havens outside the United States to cut down on its American taxes. The experts were doubtful, but Geneen insisted that ways could be found; and ever since then, ITT has surprised other companies’ accountants by the smallness of its taxes…*
As the author observes:
All conglomerates, when they shot up in the sixties, benefited greatly from the confusion of accounting methods, and the flexibility of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).
Hot Pants Accounting

The obscurantism of conglomerate accounting has aroused increasing criticism from inside the profession.  One of the most outspoken critics is Abraham Briloff, professor of accounting at Baruch College, New York… He sees conglomerators like Geneen as cowboys who invade the territory of the farmers, sell off the topsoil, and ruin the land; they expand by raping, reaping, bedazzling. He complains about “hot pants accounting,” which reveals the exciting while concealing the essential.
The Late Great Abe Briloff lasted until age 96. He died in 2013. I still miss him. 


*It is fair to say that ex-post the low level of conglomerate taxes reflected the low level of underlying profitability - rather than the high level of stated profitability. When you see a company that earns $400 million but pays only $750 thousand tax you have to ask whether it has very clever tax accountants or grossly overstated financial accounts.

[$400 million profit and $750 thousand tax was Bond Corporation in its final year. Bond Corp is a very famous Australian roll-up bankruptcy. Asked about the huge profit and low tax bill one analyst correctly replied: "profit - I do not see any profit".]

Saturday, March 21, 2015

April is the cruellest month

Lew Burton (one of those mathematical finance professor types) just tweeted:

Well I guess we might find out how much short gamma there is around the $44-5 in . On the surface it looks insane. Moar popcorn plz.

Lew it seems is a good guess.

Ackman has a big (off market) put position expiring in April in the middle of this range.

Specifically he has 12600 April put contracts at $44.50 and another 20,000 at $44.99.

This is a bit over 3 million shares.

If you are short gamma April is the cruellest month.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Herbalife compensation puzzle

Before I went away I left people a puzzle - to force people to understand the Herbalife compensation scheme.

The puzzle was - and to quote:
Imagine you were the very first Herbalife distributor and you recruited three people and they - eventually and through their downline - recruited the millions of people who now consume and/or distribute Herbalife. 
And also presume you did nothing else for the rest of your career. You just sat there and collected the "recruitment rewards" or the "royalty checks". 
Roughly how big would your income be now? And from how many levels would you be collecting your income?
The reason that I posted this puzzle was that short-sellers (broadly defined but starting with Bill Ackman's original Herbalife presentation) have publicly said many false things about Herbalife - and one area of these falsehoods has been the remuneration scheme.

Specifically Ackman thinks that the scheme is designed to push large purchases of unsellable weight loss powder and enrich Herbalife and top distributors while defauding mostly poor Latinos.

And the guesses I have received for the answer conform to this suggestion. The typical guess was about $3-5 million per year. Christine Richard - one of the key outsource researchers for Bill Ackman was in the middle of that range (at $300,000 per month). I got one estimate of upward of $50 million per year.

These estimates are based on a false assumption - an assumption promulgated by Bill Ackman. The assumption is that Herbalife's compensation scheme is a conspiracy to enrich top distributors at the expense of middle and low level distributors.

This is to misunderstand the motivations of Mark Hughes who founded Herbalife.

Mark Hughes is a character about whom people have strong opinion. I have seen everything from a flat-out man-crush to utter revulsion. But whatever you say about him you have to confess he was a clever businessman.

He invented a monstrously complicated compensation system for Herbalife distributors - and it was invented to benefit his company and not the early distributors. He did not wake up one morning and say I will make these early distributors rich for life for just sitting around.

Mark Hughes wanted Herbalife to sell a lot of product. He did not want to pay distributors to sit around and do nothing. Indeed the scheme is designed so that if you do not stay active selling your income eventually tails towards zero.

Here is how the scheme actually works (and this is a simplification but these are the core ideas).

If you are a base level distributor you buy the product at a discount of up to 42 percent. You sell it at retail. You make a margin. 
At some point you become a sales leader. A sales leader is entitled to buy it at up to 50 percent discount. You can NEVER buy the product at a higher discount than 50 percent. 
But the sales leader is entitled to a royalty. The royalty is paid three levels deep. A recruits B recruits C recruits D recruits E then A is entitled to 5% of BCD but not E's sales. B is entititled to 5% of CDE sales. That way 15 percent more is paid out. 
This you are always entitled to - three levels deep.
After that there is a "production bonus". These are up to 7% of sales based on your level. However if someone in your down-line earns 2% production bonus then you are only entitled to 5%. And when your down-line is long and successful enough the entire 7% will be earned below you. You will be blocked and receive no income.
After that and if you are senior enough you may receive the Mark Hughes Bonus - typically 1% of all sales paid infinitely deep in the sales structure. HOWEVER if someone in the Chairman's Club is below you (and this happens) then you get blocked on that too. So you will receive no Mark Hughes bonus. 
The person I describe could never be in the Chairman's Club (to do that you need 5 people below you to make a certain level) but someone who was very early and has done almost no recruiting will almost entirely be blocked on the Chairman's Club as well.
So lets calculated the answer...
They do no sales - so they get no retail discount.
They have people three levels below them - so they receive 5% of their production - but their immediate network is either senior and doing few sales or sclerotic). This is the only income they get - and it is 5% of three levels. 
They are unequivocally blocked on the "production bonus" so they get nothing there and
They are not Chairman's Club or above because they recruited only three people - and if the recruited more they would be blocked for most of it anyway just because the very early guys have all been blocked out unless they kept growing their network. 
So all they get is 5% of three levels down - which is likely to trivial - probably less than $5000 a year.
Note the 50% plus the 15% plus the 7% plus the 1% is the famous 73% payout ratio. It all gets paid - just not to the foundation recruiter. In fact it gets paid to people they recruited, people who worked hard to build networks and make more sales.

The scheme is deliberately designed to reward active people who are growing their network not old codgers at the top. It is complex I will concede - but the complexity is designed to do almost precisely the opposite of what Bill Ackman claims it is designed to do.

How did the Ackman crowd - including Christine Richard get this so wrong?

According to the Wall Street Journal Bill Ackman's researchers are currently getting investigated for (possibly) lying to investigators about Herbalife.

And they have told untruths about the Herbalife compensation scheme.

But the scheme is complicated - and they looked at the scheme and saw what they wanted to see (ie evidence of a pyramid scheme benefiting the very top) and not what is actually there (a scheme designed to incent sales).

This was self deception - but it was self-deception aided by some Herbalife distributors who say you can build "residual income" by recruiting a large network. When distributors talk about sustained residual income they are not telling the truth.

Still there are resources on the web that help you understand it. There is one distributor who is trying to sell MLMs that are not Herbalife - arguing that there is a "flaw" in the Herbalife system that denies you residual income. They want to sell you an MLM that really is a pyramid. To quote...

Now it’s down to infinity until the next level ranking Distributor at your level reaches your level. So if I’m a President’s Team member or a Millionaire Team member and I have somebody underneath me that hits Millionaire Team member, then I’m blocked off of that production bonus.
Now how the production bonus works with the Herbalife Compensation Plan is let’s say I’m a GET Team member and I have 20,000 organizational volume points, I get a 2 percent production bonus.  I’m going to get 2 percent all the way down to infinity until somebody reaches the GET Team status underneath me. Once they reach the GET Team status underneath me and if I’m GET Team myself, not advancing to Millionaire Team status yet, let’s use that as an example, then I would be cut off or the breakaway of my production bonus would take place.
So the only time that you earn production bonus is when people are not at the same level as you. So if I’m a President’s Team member and I am earning a 6 percent production bonus, and I have somebody underneath me and my team that is a Millionaire Team status, the Millionaire Team status member would get the 4 percent production bonus and I would get 2 percent because there’s a total of 6 percent paid out, and that 2 percent production bonus I would earn until that person reaches the same rank. In the example, if I was President’s Team, once they reach President’s Team, I would be cut off from that production bonus.
One of my main things that we teach here at XXX is that you should never be penalized for developing leadership. You never should be in the fear that your income is going to drop based on someone advancing to a higher rank.
This is one of the key reasons of course why Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme. Any new member can reach the higher level - though very few do. It is really hard to develop an organisation that sells hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Herbalife per month. Though every month in the US a few more people get inducted into the President's Team. And every month upper level distributors have their income reduced somewhat.

This is not the pyramid scheme Bill Ackman told us about.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Rolls Royce and the Sequoia letter

At Bronte we have a large position in Rolls Royce - the UK based manufacturer of jet engines.

Rolls is a relatively simple story - Rolls is part of a duopoly in engines for wide-bodied aircraft (aircraft with two aisles like the Dreamliner, A350, A380, 777 and forthcoming 777X).

Jet engines cost a fortune to develop and are sold at a loss - but with huge out-year maintenance streams.

The maintenance is potentially very profitable. If you sell a lot of copies of the jet engine maintenance margins can get very fat.

This duopoly is almost impossible to break. Not only would a company need to spend billions of dollars before they developed a competitive engine they would then need to sell the engine at a loss for many years until the maintenance streams come on.

Moreover it is risky.

If you attach your engine to an unsuccessful plane (like say the A340) production will be a few hundred copies - and you will eat all those development costs for smaller maintenance streams and you will not get scale on maintenance. Making unsuccessful engines or attaching engines to unsuccessful planes is a good way to lose a lot of money.

Contra: if you attach your engine to a hit plane like the 777 - especially if it is the only engine choice for that plane - you will make thousands of copies of the engine and develop scale in maintenance. And that is profitable in the billions - and maybe even tens of billions of dollars range.

Rolls has had a few less than successful planes in recent years - let by the A340 but probably including the A380. (The super-jumbo is wondrously fuel inefficient.)


The bull story revolves around the A350. On paper this new plane is the most fuel efficient long-haul plane in the world - and if that is true it should - over time - receive thousands of orders. (The current order book is slightly over 800.)

On paper Boeing's forthcoming 777X is a match for the A350 in fuel per seat kilometer - but that plane is still a paper plane. It has not flown yet.

Rolls Royce is the monopoly engine supplier to the A350. GE the monopoly on the 777X.

At Bronte we spent considerable time trying to work out whether the A350 was as fuel efficient as it was claimed to be. (Other planes, notably the A380, have not met spec.)

If the A350 meets spec and does not fail on safety then Airbus will sell many more than the current forward order book and Rolls will have a super-successful engine on its hands. Revenue will more than double over time. Operating margins will probably also double. Rolls Royce stock will be a big winner.

A test flight came through Sydney and we tried to get the fuel loading statistics from the airport. (No we are not kidding. Alas the plane was refueled by Virgin Australia and not Qantas. I could not get through.) We had other methods to try and assess the numbers too.

That question really comes down to carrying capacity. The A350-900 is claimed to be able to handle 314 passengers fully loaded. No plane has yet been fitted out with more than 300 seats but some are being delivered later this year with 306 seats.

If the plane is overweight (because it does not meet specifications) then it won't be able to carry that much load. In that case the airlines would need to spread the seats out. Passengers love this (more leg room) but airlines hate it. Fuel efficiency is compromised.

Alas the plane that came through Sydney was fitted out with about 260 seats - it was really spacious. This could have been because the plane was overweight - or it could have been because they wanted the plane to appear spacious as Airbus was merely drumming up orders. We could not tell.


We finally have a definitive answer. We have discussed the matter with pilots who have seen the training manual. That includes take-off weight specs and fuel specifications.

The plane is as good as its specifications.

And Rolls Royce should be a great stock.

This is old-fashioned in-the-weeds stock research.


There is a bad bit to Rolls Royce though. It has a business in very big diesel engines - sometimes used on ships but even more pertinently used in the stabilizer motors of large oil platforms. All of this business looks pretty bad at the moment - the cycle looks bad - and the barriers to entry look far lower than the core jet engine business.

Moreover there is no A350 on the horizon - no world-beating product that should make lots and lots of money.

It is this business - and the seeming willingness of management to commit more capital to this business - that is the bear case for Rolls.

It is also really the reason why Rolls Royce stock is a bargain.

And I have never really heard a decent explanation of why Rolls has continued to commit capital here.

But now I am hearing the whispers of activism. The latest Sequoia letter is pleading for activism. To quote:

Rolls-Royce, our largest UK position, seems willing to destroy shareholder value in the name of diversification. Rolls-Royce has a world class business making engines for wide body jets. These engines are often sold at breakeven prices, or even a loss, but come with long-term Total Care service contracts that are quite profitable. Rolls shares a duopoly with General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) in wide body engines and the barriers to entry for any newcomer would be formidable. Not only is the business intensely regulated, but a new player selling jet engines without an installed base of profitable service contracts likely would lose billions of dollars to capture market share from GE and Rolls. Not surprisingly, Rolls earns more than a 20% return on invested capital in civil aviation and its installed base of service contracts and strong backlog suggest Rolls should grow profitably for years to come. 
And yet Rolls’ board of directors decided that it wanted to diversify deeper into the marine engine and power generation businesses, competitive sectors that are being encroached by low cost Asian players. To pursue this strategy, the board appears to have pushed out a sitting CEO who had crafted the successful Total Care service contract selling model, and replaced him with John Rishton, a board member who, in our meetings with him, has shown minimal awareness of the returns on capital his acquisitions have generated. 
Rolls’ stock declined more than 30% in sterling during the year as investors lost confidence in management. We held our shares in the belief that Rolls’ wounds are self-inflicted and reversible. The recent share price does not properly value the civil aviation business even if we ascribe little value to the marine and energy businesses. However, management and the board seem stubborn and entrenched, and it may take a tough-minded activist to force strategic change.

I am a little happier with John Rishton. The market hatred of the man has allowed us to buy Rolls cheap. But whatever - he has a little explaining to do or the activists will get rid of him kind of fast. If the whispers get to me they have really got around Wall Street. I am kind of low on the pecking order.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Herbalife and subpoenas

Bill Ackman has now conceded that his (sub)contractors have received subpoenas regarding Herbalife.

The Wall Street Journal - who broke the story say:

[the investigators are] looking into whether people, including some hired by Mr. Ackman, made false statements about Herbalife’s business model to regulators and others in order to spur investigations into the company and lower its stock price.

There is a presupposition here - which is that the Feds believe that the story told regulators is false.

No more comment is required.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

A puzzle for the next ten days...

I am just about to get on a plane to China and Hong Kong - so I will be away for a little while.

However I have a puzzle for all you Herbalife junkies out there... and it might require you do some research.

Imagine you were the very first Herbalife distributor and you recruited three people and they - eventually and through their downline - recruited the millions of people who now consume and/or distribute Herbalife.

And also presume you did nothing else for the rest of your career. You just sat there and collected the "recruitment rewards" or the "royalty checks".

Roughly how big would your income be now? And from how many levels would you be collecting your income?

Answers either by replies to this post or by email.


General disclaimer

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Hempton. You should assume Mr. Hempton and his affiliates have positions in the securities discussed in this blog, and such beneficial ownership can create a conflict of interest regarding the objectivity of this blog. Statements in the blog are not guarantees of future performance and are subject to certain risks, uncertainties and other factors. Certain information in this blog concerning economic trends and performance is based on or derived from information provided by third-party sources. Mr. Hempton does not guarantee the accuracy of such information and has not independently verified the accuracy or completeness of such information or the assumptions on which such information is based. Such information may change after it is posted and Mr. Hempton is not obligated to, and may not, update it. The commentary in this blog in no way constitutes a solicitation of business, an offer of a security or a solicitation to purchase a security, 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.