Thursday, May 28, 2015
And yet FIFA officials are subject to American extradition warrants on the basis of American law.
This is from one of the countries that is not a participant in the International Criminal Court and does not like to subject itself to international law.
I have little doubt that FIFA is corrupt. And I don't doubt it deserves to be cleaned up.
But try this scenario. A country (say France) makes it illegal to emit greenhouse gases above a certain quantity in non-compliance with international agreements. US utility executives (who emit huge amounts of greenhouse gas) are travelling in a third country (say Switzerland) and get arrested to be tried in France.
Would you be comfortable?
I would not. But you could reasonably argue that ensuring the planet is not despoiled is more important than cleaning up corruption in football. And you could reasonably argue that emissions in the United States affect France far more than say soccer corruption affects the United States.
This is just anti-democratic. We non-Americans did not vote for the US laws and the US legal system is not responsive to our votes.
But the US system applies to us even when we are not dealing with Americans.
It seems strange to me to explain democracy to Americans - but alas it seems Americans have forgotten the tyranny of foreign laws.
Postscript. It seems some of the crimes involved US Citizens and on US soil... but the extraterritorial claim is still made. Some are non US citizens concerning Brazilian tournaments.
Many people commented on extradition treaties requiring the crime be a crime in both jurisdictions... but the arrests took place in a third country - Switzerland - that had tenuous links to the crime.
This editorial is also to the point...
Friday, May 22, 2015
Now that Hanergy has been suspended I can let these out.
I went to visit Hanergy's main factory in China about a six weeks ago. It was almost entirely silent. There was essentially no production of solar cells at all and the accounts that suggest significant production and sales are entirely fraudulent.
There was some evidence that someone was exploring starting production - and I will get to that - but the factory was almost entirely idle.
Here are a few photos.
This is the plant. There were almost no cars despite a vast car park. All gates except one were locked.
There was a single truck being loaded with solar cells - so there was *some* production. However this truck was being loaded when we arrived and still there when we left two hours later. This plant if it had any production at all had it only a trial basis. The accounts that suggest substantial production are false.
This is another photograph of the main drive to the plant. One car was parked. There was no movement.
This I found particularly bizarre. There were solar cells set up around the plant Some of them were set up in triangle-patterns. This is the only place I have ever seen solar cells set up so that they are not orientated towards the sun.
I walked around the enormous plant. Not a truck went by and the only people we saw except at the side were the gardeners. (There were several of them - and we asked them if it ever got any busier. They confirmed it did not.)
However on the side there was a shaded area with some motorbikes parked - which suggest that the plant is not entirely idle. Just almost.
Strangely two white guys walked out of the plant. I think they were Americans trying to sell some technology - maybe sales guys from AMAT - but I am only guessing. I tried to signal for them to come over but they did not.
There has been much press that compares Hanergy to other solar companies and suggests there may be disruptions in the market for panels. Garbage I say. The right comparison is Sino Forest or Longtop Financial Technology.
Hanergy barely existed.
Disclosure that will annoy my clients. Despite sitting on these we were not short Hanergy. Too much squeeze risk for my liking.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
So many people thought the last blog post was wrong that I need to take it seriously. Several Europeans who claimed direct knowledge of the traffic in that McDonalds in Milan suggested it was profitable.
One person tartly tweeted that my post was from the "Thomas Friedman school of observing something inconsequential and developing an unverifiable explanation".
Here is how I thought about it...
Here is the P&L from McDonalds in 2014.
I am assuming this was a company owned store - and I will not allow any of the generalised SG&A to be billed back to this store.
Company stores had 18.17 billion in revenue and 15.29 billion in direct costs (listed as food and paper, payroll and occupancy etc). This is about an 18 percent margin.
This store was (ignoring Venice*) in the most expensive place to operate in Northern Italy. I roughly knew these numbers and it was almost inconceivable to me that this store isn't 18 percent worse than the average MickeyD's in terms of operating costs or the like.
That suggests the received wisdom about the lack of competitiveness of certain European countries (and the need for an internal devaluation or deflation) is wrong. Staggeringly wrong. Now whilst I am bullish on many European names and I am here looking for prospective investments but I am far from that bullish.
I come from another expensive country (Australia) where cost-competitiveness doesn't look all that good. McDonalds has only closed a few stores - but it has downsized several in high cost areas near me. A small high-cost store seems to be acceptable. A large one, not so much.
The store in the high-cost but highly trafficked Bondi Beach is small. It never looks profitable, but I may be wrong there too.
*Venice is a frighteningly expensive special case at least in part because the logistics are difficult.
An alert reader tells me that this site has a history of concessional rent - and has been the subject of legal action. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/16/us-mcdonalds-milan-idUSBRE89F1BP20121016
Maybe that explains it.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
It's pretty clear what is going on here. These countries see airlines and skyscrapers as symbols of national importance and they build both without regard to cost.
But all in all it made me think of the superiority of our Western liberal system. We have bubbles of course - but nothing like this.
In Abu Dhabi I saw very beautiful skyscrapers with government employees spread at one employee per 120 square metres. You could play cricket inside the building and nobody would notice. Just empty space.
So I get to Milan - and 50 metres from the Duomo I am wondering through a very famous shopping arcade in the early morning. Here is the photo.
Turn around 180 degrees and this is the view:
Yeah, there it is, Mickey D's (NYSE:MCD).
They can't possibly be making money here - just planting the flag amongst all the Italian restaurants.
This is a statement of ego rather than anything else. It doesn't have the grandiosity of Doha, but then McDonalds is not as rich as Qatar. The ego/motivation is the same.
They would be better off closing this and dedicating the savings to keeping the toilets in the US restaurants clean.
But then property has often been a statement of ego - and US mega-corporates are not immune.
PS. If Carl Icahn controlled a big stake in MCD this store would close. Carl often brings some rationality to these things.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
This is Australia and New Zealand's remembrance day for all war dead.
There are no survivors left from that war - and the ranks of Second World War veterans are thinning. But the Trust is doing an admirable job of keeping the memory alive and relevant - and Martin Place was packed at 4 AM for the service.
Wreaths were placed by representatives of all our Armed Services and our Allies and also by the Turkish Consul - but compared to my Anzac Day of a few years ago it felt a stilted affair.
A few years ago I went with Alice - a then elderly war-widow - and I wrote it up for the blog. Alice is no longer with us - but to keep the memory alive I will repeat the post.
The original ANZACs were the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. They landed on 25 April 1915 at Galipoli in the Dardenelles for what was to become a protracted and punishing military defeat.
My mother was raised in an orphanage in Brisbane run by Legacy. As far as I know, she doesn't go to A.N.Z.A.C. Day parades, but does go to the Dawn Service. The "Legacy Kids"/orphans have their own get-togethers. Every August for the past 26 years, the orphans have a re-union on the birthday of the woman who ran the orphanage. She was a Legacy employee who had lost her husband on the Kokoda Track. One of her brothers was a Rat of Tobrook (9th Division) and El Alemein veteran, who later lost an arm at Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea. Another of her brothers is buried in France, killed while flying for the RAF. After her husband died, she lost her only child. She later gave back by running the orphanage for Legacy. She touched hundreds of orphan's lives. They never forgot her. She was also my Godmother.
My Grandfather was killed in Sydney during WWII while serving in the Australian Army. My mother has never visited his grave - its just too painful, even after all these years. My father has an uncle buried in northern France, a casualty of WWI's Battle of the Somme. No one from our family has ever visited his grave to pay our respects. There are many families like ours in Australia with similar stories to tell.
Lest We Forget.
The 7th Division left Australia in October 1940 for the Middle East. Over the next two months, the 7th was concentrated in Palestine. It was slotted for a move to Greece to help in the defence against Axis invasion, but instead moved into defensive positions in the Western Desert. Parts of the Division under the command of Maj General Allen crossed into Syria and fought a hard won victory in the campaign against the Vichy French . 18th Brigade excelled itself as part of the defence of Tobruk. With Japanese invasion of Australia imminent, the Division was recalled home. Elements of the Division (2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, 2/2 Pioneer Battalion, 2/2 CCS,2/6 Fld Pk Coy and 105 Gen Tpt Coy)were diverted to Java. They fought a defensive campaign against overwhelming Japanese odds and were only forced to surrender after an early capitulation by the Dutch forces there.
The Division moved to New Guinea and established headquarters in Port Moresby. The timely arrival of the Division in New Guinea helped to halt the Japanese advance.. 21st Brigade fought a bitter campaign of attrition on the Kokoda Track,until replaced by 25th Brigade who slowly forced the Japanese northwards. 18th Brigade and other Australian units inflicted the first decisive defeat of the Japanese on land in World War 11 at Milne Bay and then at Buna and Sanananda in January 1943. 21st Brigade and the militia 39tth Battalion won a costly victory at Gona in December 1942. George Vasey took over command of the Division in October 1942, until his death in a plane crash in 1945. Major General Milford then took over command until the end of the war. In 1943, the Division was airlifted from Port Moresby to Nadzab in the Markham Valley. After an advance on Lae, the Markham and Ramu Valleys were soon swept clear of Japanese troops. A bloody campaign in the mountains of the Finisterre Ranges followed.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
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
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
(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
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).
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.
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