Monday, 29 September 2008

The Limits of Optimism

The absurd actions of our financial authorities continue to impress with the sheer hubris and vast scale of their proposals - with today's bailout attempt being the latest and greatest of many attempts. Some of the government's contortions would be impressive even for Cirque du Soleil were they not such a blatant effort to distort the market. Our nation and the world at large seem to be living out the economic equivalent of a Kafka novel today. Yet even here we see the boundaries of government interference and the limits of (unjustified) optimism. As advocates of the free market and rule of law, we have been constantly appalled. A nominally Republican administration continually interferes with market forces and changes investment rules in the middle of the game. How did we come to such a sad pass?

Like many children, yours truly had a favorite word for much of his childhood - "Why?" Eventually, I stopped bothering Mother but never stopped asking the question. It is particularly pertinent now. How did we put ourselves in a position where using tax money to subsidize Wall Street's losses could even be considered? Well, the stock market is now considered key to the retirement of many Americans.

Er, most Americans now have a substantial part of their pension or 401(k) invested in stocks.

Well, the higher average rate of return on stocks allows us to say that retirement is fully funded with less up-front investment. This is especially important for corporate and government pension plans. For individuals it allows hope of the big score and a cushy retirement.

Did the pension managers decide that was a good idea, themselves?
Umm, not really. Remember, stocks are not bought - they are sold. Some smart salesmen on Wall Street started to push this in the late 1980s, just as the last people who lived through the Great Depression were retiring.

But what about the higher risk?
The salesmen could point to the superior long-term returns from equity, while glossing over the risk and the folks who remembered the risk in very visceral ways were gone. Even so, many pension managers objected but were overruled by their bosses who wanted to lay out less money for pensions so they could spend it elsewhere (government) or report higher earnings (corporate).

What about 401(k) plans?
The long bull market convinced many individuals that there was little risk in stocks. They certainly had produced high returns. Many people hitched their wagon the Wall Street.

Perpetual Motion Machine
With so much money from average Americans pouring in, stocks could hardly do anything else but rise. Eventually it became a self-fulfilling prophecy as money chased performance, while pushing the price up in turn. That reached its peak with the Tech Bubble, when completely worthless companies were valued in the billions. When that broke down, the Fed stepped in and created a new bubble - actually several bubbles, led by housing. The same self-reinforcing dynamic - as old as markets themselves played out again.

With so much money from the masses committed to the stock and housing markets, there is considerable support for ANY measure to bail out these markets and prop up asset prices. This is the end result of individuals and pension funds refusing to settle for the smaller but steady gains from lower-risk investments. Keep in mind that not long ago, most pension and endowment type funds invested almost exclusively in bonds. For the economic importance of this, let's examine the characteristics of each class of capital:

- Senior Debt (bonds or bank loans):
first in line for assets and cash
must be paid or the creditor can liquidate the borrower
reliant on total company cash reserves

- Junior Debt:
next in line but otherwise similar to Senior Debt

- Preferred Stock:
3rd in line for assets and cash
dividend can be suspended as stockholders CANNOT force liquidation
reliant on company cash flow

- Common Stock:
last in line for assets and cash
dividend has the least protection of any security
reliant on company profits
potential for speculative gains

Slouching towards Insolvency
Over time, asset allocations at all levels have become riskier, including pension funds. From an economic standpoint, investment results became more reliant on marginal financial activities. For example, bonds are tied to current and future corporate cash (reserves + cash flow), which tends to have a linear relationship with revenue. Preferred is reliant largely on cash flow. Common is tied to marginal profit and even to the growth rate of profit - the second and third derivatives of revenue. Investment results went from relying on the soundness of the companies, to their profitability and then to the growth rate of that profitability. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the emphasis shifted away from ensuring that companies remained sound and certain to survive and towards showing growth or even accelerating growth (a fourth derivative!) at almost any price.

The eventual price was to lever up companies far beyond what was prudent in the quest for "growth." It didn't matter if the growth was real or not, it just had to look real for the shareholders. Companies undermined their own capital base with stock buybacks that juiced EPS growth while consuming cash flow and in some cases requiring additional indebtedness. We pointed to this problem nearly a year ago in Tactical Nukes. The paradoxical result was a slew of companies that were "growing" rapidly but could not survive a downturn. By placing so much reliance on marginal outcomes, the system became easy to game as small movements in revenue could drive huge changes in "growth" rates. Eventually, growth became THE foundation of many investment strategies, making those folks dependent on them willing to support increasing distortions of free markets for financial gain.

Those distortions have been a large part of the discussion here at Financial Jenga since the very beginning. The collapse of the illusion of growth and the economic distortions that supported it have revealed the true state of the underlying economy for all to see and it's not a pretty sight. Such are the ironic outcomes of the Universal Debt Bubble.

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