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“Liquor before Beer… In the Clear”

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October 21, 2009 – Comments (1)

I've always liked David Einhorn (Greenlight Capital) and I attempt to read anything that he has written that I can get my hands on.  If I didn't like Einhorn already, I certainly would after reading the following title of the address that he gave earlier this week at the Value Investing Congress, “Liquor before Beer… In the Clear” HA what a classic.  Kudos to the blog Sense on Cents for providing a link to the text of his speech.  It is an excellent read and I encourage everyone to check it out.

Here are a few of the highlights that I took away from it:

Einhorn on government regulation of banks

The lesson that I have learned is that it isn’t reasonable to be agnostic about the big picture. For years I had believed that I didn’t need to take a view on the market or the economy because I considered myself to be a “bottom up” investor. Having my eyes open to the big picture doesn’t mean abandoning stock picking, but it does mean managing the longshort exposure ratio more actively, worrying about what may be brewing in certain industries, and when appropriate, buying some just-in-case insurance for foreseeable macro risks even if they are hard to time.

As I see it, there are two basic problems in how we have designed our government. The first is that officials favor policies with short-term impact over those in our long-term interest because they need to be popular while they are in office and they want to be reelected. In recent times, opinion tracking polls, the immediate reactions of focus groups, the 24/7 news cycle, the constant campaign, and the moment-to-moment obsession with the Dow Jones Industrial Average have magnified the political pressures to favor short-term solutions.

Earlier this year, the political topic du jour was to debate whether the stimulus was working, before it had even been spent.

Paul Volcker was an unusual public official because he was willing to make unpopular decisions in the early ’80s and was disliked at the time. History, though, judges him kindly for the era of prosperity that followed.

Author's note, thie reference to the strong-willed Volker meshes very well with my post from earlier today on him, Start Listening to Volker.

Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly “do whatever it takes” to “solve one problem at a time” and deal with the unintended consequences later. It is too soon for history to evaluate their work, because there hasn’t been time for the unintended consequences of the “do whatever it takes” decision-making to materialize.

The second weakness in our government is “concentrated benefit versus diffuse harm” also known as the problem of special interests. Decision makers help small groups who care about narrow issues and whose “special interests” invest substantial resources to be better heard through lobbying, public relations and campaign support. The special interests benefit while the associated costs and consequences are spread broadly through the rest of the population. With individuals bearing a comparatively small extra burden, they are less motivated or able to fight in Washington.

In the context of the recent economic crisis, a highly motivated and organized banking lobby has demonstrated enormous influence. Bankers advance ideas like, “without banks, we would have no economy.” Of course, there was a public interest in protecting the guts of the system, but the ATMs could have continued working, even with forced debt-to-equity conversions that would not have required any public funds. Instead, our leaders responded by handing over hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to protect the speculative investments of bank shareholders and creditors. This has been particularly remarkable, considering that most agree that these same banks had an enormous role in creating this mess which has thrown millions out of their homes and jobs.

Like teenagers with their parents away, financial institutions threw a wild party that eventually tore-up the neighborhood. With their charge arrested and put in jail to detoxify, the supervisors were faced with a decision: Do we let the party goers learn a tough lesson or 3 do we bail them out? Different parents with different philosophies might come to different decisions on this point. As you know our regulators went the bail-out route.

But then the question becomes, once you bail them out, what do you do to discipline the misbehavior? Our authorities have taken the response that kids will be kids. “What? You drank beer and then vodka. Are you kidding? Didn’t I teach you, beer before liquor, never sicker, liquor before beer, in the clear! Now, get back out there and have a good time.” And for the last few months we have seen the beginning of another party, which plays nicely toward government  preferences for short-term favorable news-flow while satisfying the banking special interest. It has not done much to repair the damage to the neighborhood…

On the anniversary of Lehman’s failure, President Obama gave a terrific speech. He said, “Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for the consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break the fall.” Later he advocated an end of “too big to fail.” Then he added, “For a market to function, those who invest and lend in that market must believe that their money is actually at risk.” These are good points that he should run by his policy team, because Secretary Geithner’s reform proposal does exactly the opposite…

The lesson of Lehman should not be that the government should have prevented its failure. The lesson of Lehman should be that Lehman should not have existed at a scale that allowed it to jeopardize the financial system. And the same logic applies to AIG, Fannie, Freddie, Bear Stearns, Citigroup and a couple dozen others.

Twenty-five years ago the government dismantled AT&T. Its break-up set forth decades of unbelievable progress in that industry. We can do that again here in the financial sector and we would achieve very positive social benefit with no cost that anyone can seem to explain.

The proposed reform takes us in the polar opposite direction. The cop-out response from Washington is that it isn’t “practical.” Our leaders are so influenced by the banking special interests that they would rather declare it “impractical” than roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get the job done.

Einhorn on the economy

An alternative lesson from the double dip the economy took in 1938 is that the GDP created by massive fiscal stimulus is artificial. So whenever it is eventually removed, there will be significant economic fall out. Our choice may be either to maintain large annual deficits until our creditors refuse to finance them or tolerate another leg down in our economy by accepting some measure of fiscal discipline.

Over the next decade the welfare states will come to face severe demographic problems. Baby Boomers have driven the U.S. economy since they were born. It is no coincidence that we experienced an economic boom between 1980 and 2000, as the Boomers reached their peak productive years. The Boomers are now reaching retirement. The Social Security and Medicare commitments to them are astronomical.

When the government calculates its debt and deficit it does so on a cash basis. This means that deficit accounting does not take into account the cost of future promises until the money goes out the door. According to shadowstats.com, if the federal government counted the cost of its future promises, the 2008 deficit was over $5 trillion and total obligations are over $60 trillion. And that was before the crisis.

Over the last couple of years we have adopted a policy of private profits and socialized risks. We are transferring many private obligations onto the national ledger. Although our leaders ought to make some serious choices, they appear too trapped in short-termism and special interests to make them. Taking no action is an action.

In the nearer-term the deficit on a cash basis is about $1.6 trillion or 11% of GDP. President Obama forecasts $1.4 trillion next year, and with an optimistic economic outlook, $9 trillion over the next decade. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research recently published a study that indicated that “by all relevant debt indicators, the U.S. fiscal scenario will soon approximate the economic scenario for countries on the verge of a sovereign debt default.”

As we sit here today, the Federal Reserve is propping up the bond market, buying long-dated assets with printed money. It cannot turn around and sell what it has just bought.

There is a basic rule of liquidity. It isn’t the same for everyone. If you own 10,000 shares of Greenlight Re, you have a liquid investment. However, if I own 5 million shares it is not liquid to me, because of both the size of the position and the signal my selling would send to the market. For this reason, the Fed cannot sell its Treasuries or Agencies without destroying the market. This means that it will be challenged to shrink the monetary base if inflation actually turns up.

Further, the Federal Open Market Committee members may not recognize inflation when they see it, as looking at inflation solely through the prices of goods and services, while ignoring asset inflation, can lead to a repeat of the last policy error of holding rates too low for too long.

At the same time, the Treasury has dramatically shortened the duration of the government debt. As a result, higher rates become a fiscal issue, not just a monetary one. The Fed could reach the point where it perceives doing whatever it takes requires it to become the buyer of Treasuries of first and last resort.

Japan appears even more vulnerable, because it is even more indebted and its poor demographics are a decade ahead of ours. Japan may already be past the point of no return. When a country cannot reduce its ratio of debt to GDP over any time horizon, it means it can only refinance, but can never repay its debts. Japan has about 190% debt-to-GDP financed at an average cost of less than 2%. Even with the benefit of cheap financing the Japanese deficit is expected to be 10% of GDP this year. At some point, as American homeowners with teaser interest rates have learned, when the market refuses to refinance at cheap rates, problems quickly emerge. Imagine the fiscal impact of the market resetting Japanese borrowing costs to 5%.

Over the last few years, Japanese savers have been willing to finance their government deficit. However, with Japan’s population aging, it’s likely that the domestic savers will begin using those savings to fund their retirements. The newly elected DPJ party that favors domestic consumption might speed up this development. Should the market re-price Japanese credit risk, it is hard to see how Japan could avoid a government default or hyperinflationary currency death spiral.

The failure of Lehman meant that barring extraordinary measures, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs would have failed as the credit market realized that if the government were willing to permit failures, then the cost of financing such institutions needed to be re-priced so as to invalidate their business models.

I believe there is a real possibility that the collapse of any of the major currencies could have a similar domino effect on re-assessing the credit risk of the other fiat currencies run by countries with structural deficits and large, unfunded commitments to aging populations.

I believe that the conventional view that government bonds should be "risk free" and tied to nominal GDP is at risk of changing. Periodically, high quality corporate bonds have traded at lower yields than sovereign debt. That could happen again.

And, of course, these structural risks are exacerbated by the continued presence of credit rating agencies that inspire false confidence with potentially catastrophic results by over-rating the sovereign debt of the largest countries. There is no reason to believe that the rating agencies will do a better job on sovereign risk than they have done on corporate or structured finance risks.

My firm recently met with a Moody’s sovereign risk team covering twenty countries in Asia and the Middle East. They have only four professionals covering the entire region. Moody’s does not have a long-term quantitative model that incorporates changes in the population, incomes, expected tax rates, and so forth. They use a short-term outlook – only 12-18 months – to analyze data to assess countries’ abilities to finance themselves. Moody’s makes five-year medium-term qualitative assessments for each country, but does not appear to do any long-term quantitative or critical work.

Their main role, again, appears to be to tell everyone that things are fine, until a real crisis emerges at which point they will pile-on credit downgrades at the least opportune moment, making a difficult situation even more difficult for the authorities to manage…

When I watch Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Geithner and Mr. Summers on TV, read speeches written by the Fed Governors, observe the “stimulus” black hole, and think about our short-termism and lack of fiscal discipline and political will, my instinct is to want to short the dollar. But then I look at the other major currencies. The Euro, the Yen, and the British Pound might be worse. So, I conclude that picking one these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure.

Now here is someone who “gets it.” Amazing speech David.  Bravo.  I do not share the speaker’s love of gold, I personally prefer to purchase other commodities as a hedge against inflation caused by a fall in the U.S. dollar such as oil and stock in foreign dividend-paying companies, but I agree with much of what Einhorn said in his speech.

Deej

1 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On October 22, 2009 at 5:49 PM, cutchemist42 (80.40) wrote:

Great read, thanks!

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