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Venture Capitalists Expect to Lose Money on Some Investments

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Wall St. Cheat Sheet argues that there is a bubble in software companies and that it is going to end badly for investors.

The thing is, all of the companies cited are funded by venture capitalists and angel investors, all of whom build into their businesses a number of failures. So, I don’t really see where the bubble is, or why its consequences would be like that of the dot-com bubble. The distinction here is that a lot of the dot-com companies were publicly traded and so the man on the street could gamble with them. The small software companies building web apps, like AppMakr, ManyMoon, BaseCamp, and FourSquare (all of which are cited by Wall St. Cheat Sheet) are not financed by public equity holders, and so are not analogous to the dot-com companies. These companies are funded with private money.

The business model of venture capitalists and angel investors has always been that a few outsized hits will more than recoup the losses that most of their investments incur. This is why venture capitalists and angel investors are known for their “high risk/high reward” business model. (This is also why most individual investors had no business investing in dot-coms, but that is another story entirely.) But the notion that these companies represent a dot-com-style bubble is rather far-fetched.

The Optimistic Case for the US Economy

April 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Daniel Gross waxes optimistic about the state of the American economy:

But the long-term decline of the U.S. economy has been greatly exaggerated. America is coming back stronger, better, and faster than nearly anyone expected—and faster than most of its international rivals. The Dow Jones industrial average, hovering near 11,000, is up 70 percent in the past year, and auto sales in the first quarter were up 16 percent from 2009. The economy added 162,000 jobs in March, including 17,000 in manufacturing. The dollar has gained strength, and the United States is back to its familiar position of lapping Europe and Japan in growth. Among large economies, only China, India, and Brazil are growing more rapidly than the United States—and they’re doing so off a much smaller base. If the U.S. economy grows at a 3.6 percent rate this year, as Macroeconomic Advisers projects, it’ll create $513 billion in new economic activity—equal to the GDP of Indonesia.

This is all well and good, and it would be nice if it comes to pass. But here’s the thing: Gross is essentially being a contrarian here. He looks good if the economy turns out to perform better than the consensus opinion suggests, and, well, if the economy crashes, none of us are exactly going to be looking to him for guidance anyway.

“People with mortgages are still renters…”

April 11, 2010 Leave a comment

An incisive comment about people’s misunderstanding of what a mortgage represents: it is a promise to pay back a creditor a lump sum plus interest payments. In what real sense, then, is a mortgage holder an owner of a piece of property?

Via Felix Salmon’s Twitter feed.

Shocker: Real Estate Prices and Interest Rates are Inversely Related!

April 11, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the more annoying things about reading about residential real estate is this repeated claim by those who should know better that real estate is an inflation hedge.

But, if you stop and think about it for a moment, you will quickly realize that’s a foolish argument. Residential real estate is principally financed by debt; therefore, its price should move inversely to inflation, just as do other debt securities such as bonds.

In any event, it’s very refreshing to see the New York Times accurately reporting on the relationship between real estate prices and interest rates:

The impact of higher rates is likely to be felt first in the housing market, which has only recently begun to rebound from a deep slump. The rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage has risen half a point since December, hitting 5.31 last week, the highest level since last summer.

Along with the sell-off in bonds, the Federal Reserve has halted its emergency $1.25 trillion program to buy mortgage debt, placing even more upward pressure on rates.

“Mortgage rates are unlikely to go lower than they are now, and if they go higher, we’re likely to see a reversal of the gains in the housing market,” said Christopher J. Mayer, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School. “It’s a really big risk.”

Each increase of 1 percentage point in rates adds as much as 19 percent to the total cost of a home, according to Mr. Mayer.

The Mortgage Bankers Association expects the rise to continue, with the 30-year mortgage rate going to 5.5 percent by late summer and as high as 6 percent by the end of the year.

I would say that I hope this augurs financial literacy on the part of buyers of residential real estate, but even I am not that optimistic.

Should You Invest with the Random Guy Down the Street?

April 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Apparently the new thing is for people to invest with miscellaneous investors who have generated some good returns:

Who needs a stock broker or mutual fund when you can take on the big shots at their own game? A growing number of investors are casting their lot not with Wall Street’s giants but with the small-time stock pickers on Main Street.

Covestor.com, the site that Mr. Risch uses, has grown from a handful of registered users to more than 27,000 since it launched in 2007. Another upstart, kaChing.com, says it has attracted more than $6 million from clients who follow its “geniuses”—seasoned pros plus a handful of individual investors who have racked up exceptional records verified by the site. Those individuals include a former chemist, a health-care industry worker and a college student who caught the investing bug after watching the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street (and who is up more than threefold in the past year).

The assumption seems to be that these individual investors have some insight into the market that professional market players don’t. Admittedly, a lot of the advice proffered by self-described market pros isn’t worth the energy they expend propounding on the markets, but it doesn’t follow that following the random investment ideas of small investors will yield better returns over time. In any event, these services are a rather expensive proposition:

Fees for most managers on Covestor average $98 a year for each $10,000 invested, but managers charge up to 2.3% for the more actively traded portfolios. That doesn’t include trading commissions that clients pay separately. KaChing’s fees average 1.25% before commissions, and it has some managers who charge more than 2%. That compares with the fund industry’s average expenses of 1.4% for actively managed domestic stock funds. KaChing CEO Andy Rachleff says the fees aren’t high when you factor in other expenses, such as marketing fees and sales charges that can jack up the costs of mutual funds. Covestor CEO Perry Blacher adds, “There are no hidden fees, no middlemen, no Wall Street conflicts of interest.”

It seems to me that the standard advice of a broadly diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds is what most small investors should choose. Boring, but (relatively) safe.

Bad Business Models and the Consequences of Union Labor

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Megan McArdle has an incisive post about the problems that have driven US Airways and United into each others’ arms:

The airline industry is not a particularly attractive market. You’re selling a perishable commodity–once the doors close, any unfilled seats are worthless–to an audience that stubbornly resists treating your product as much other than a commodity. Attempts by the airlines to resist this, with their byzantine pricing rules and frequent flier programs, have by and large not succeeded particularly well; business travelers tend to have multiple frequent flier accounts unless they live near a single airline’s home airport, and economy fliers don’t care. Meanwhile, software is steadily eroding their ability to thwart bargain-hunting consumers through pricing power.

Clearly, the airlines have plenty of reasons for their current parlous state. But it is interesting to consider that, given the blame intransigent labor unions have in this state of affairs, how few people make the connection between rigid labor rules and poorly managed companies. Companies with a history of rancor between labor and management–which describes most unionized workforces–spend a lot of time and energy managing that fractious relationship and so spend less time on operational goals such as product innovation and revenue growth. Compare and contrast Apple and Google with the airlines.

The Problem with Regulating Banks is the Regulators

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Lost among all the discussion about how to regulate banks and financial markets in order to avoid a repeat of recent events is this: in order to effectively regulate something the regulators have to be good at their jobs.

Tyler Cowen writes:

Bank regulation is a tough slog, it depends on the quality of the bureaucracy and the periodic attention of a somewhat responsible legislature, “toughness” can be counterproductive, the historic periodic of regulatory “easiness” relied on cartelization and near-automatic profits, and it is like a chess game whereby the private sector eventually finds a way around most of the binding regulations.

Arnold Kling writes:

I do not propose breaking up large banks as a solution for risk cycles in banking. I have a pessimistic view, in which I think that risk cycles are inevitable. I see breaking up large banks as making it easier to disentangle banks from government. That is a good thing by itself, even if it does nothing to change the amplitude of the risk cycle. However, it is quite possible that the amplitude of risk cycles would be reduced if government were less involved. The presumption among those on the left who favor regulation is always that regulators will somehow be smarter than banks over the course of the risk cycle, when the evidence strikes me as showing the reverse to be the case.

Finally, here is Gregory Mankiw:

Government regulators will always be outnumbered and underpaid compared with those whose interest it is to circumvent the regulations. Legislators will often be distracted by other priorities. To believe that the government will ever become a reliable watchdog would be a tragic mistake.

It seems to me that one way to avoid the problem of ineffective regulators, or at least to mitigate it, is to pay regulators market-clearing rates, in order to attract people who would have otherwise gone into banking or trading. In other words, if financial market regulators earned salaries on par with mid-level bankers and traders, financial regulatory bodies may very well prove adept at being able to regulate market participants because the regulators would be competing on equal cognitive footing with those participants. A more succinct way of saying this: staff regulatory agencies with the same exceptionally bright people who work on Wall St. and you may actually have people capable of understanding markets. Perhaps, though, I am attributing too much importance to intelligence and too little to something else. Nonetheless, I think Cowen, Kling, and Mankiw’s comments are all correct and not enough attention is paid to them.

Update: There’s an interesting discussion here of Brazil’s regulatory structure. Simply put bank executives have a lot more on the line if things go bad:

The recent proposals by Senator Dodd do not go far enough in reining in a financial system that still incentivizes excessive risk taking. The suggestions I’ve made above are no panacea, either, but if any of them seems even the least bit Draconian to those occupying the corner suites on Wall Street, they should be very thankful our Congress has not yet adopted the Brazilian approach to financial regulation. In the most recent cover story of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer” (www.grantspub.com), Jim Grant casts an approving eye on the Brazilian practice of holding a bank’s officers and board members accountable when things go awry at the institution they are charged with guiding. He quotes two principals at Dynamo Capital, who relate that “the net worth of officers and board members is blocked in cases of litigation, losses arising from negligent management or filings for bankruptcy.”

Having one’s net worth on the line while in office is sobering enough for a bank manager or director, but the Brazilians have added a sharp claw-back provision as well. The rule is in effect not just when managers and directors are on the job but also for a full five years after they leave office — longer if legal proceedings are the unfortunate result. What a great concept; with the chances for reward come the full responsibilities for failure! It makes one wonder whether Chuck Prince would have still been dancing in 2006/2007 if every penny he owned was on the line, or if Dick Fuld would have thought twice before levering Lehman’s equity thirtyfold or more.

In the not too distant past, Wall Street firms were partnerships and bank shareholders were liable when the bank they owned hit the rocks. Since we can’t turn back the clock, and since the average Congressperson is unlikely to understand half of my above-listed suggestions (let alone enact them), I would reluctantly settle for the following reforms: Put CDS on proper exchanges; institute a hard cap on leverage of no more than 12 times tangible common equity; and put in place a Brazilian-inspired rule to hold managers and directors financially responsible for failure. As long as banks are run by human beings, we’ll never be able to prevent bankers from making dumb decisions. But with these simple and enforceable border mechanisms in place, we can at least lower the systemic costs of those poor decisions while requiring those who made them to shoulder as much of the financial burden as they can bear. Who knows? Maybe even our contentious Congress will grasp the benefits.