Saturday, October 24, 2009

Insider Trading: My Perspective..

The recent arrest of Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of Galleon Group , a hedge fund, on charges of insider trading has generated responses from across the spectrum. At the one end, it is evoking the usual breast beating about insider trading and how unfair it is to the rest of us "non-inside" investors.
At the other, there are some who are pointing out that this case illustrates how ineffective insider trading laws are and that they should perhaps be abandoned.
It is clearly a good time to offer my perspective on insider trading:

1. What is insider trading?
In it's most general form, insider trading refers to some investors trading on "proprietary information" that is not available to the rest of the market. The legal definition of insider trading, though, is a little more difficult to nail down. In the United States, insiders (managers of companies, directors etc.) are allowed to trade, as long at they meet two requirements:
a. They do not trade ahead of information events - acquisitions and earnings announcements, for instance - where they have access to the information prior to the rest of the world.
b. They report their trades to the SEC in filings.

Put another way, it is not illegal for a CEO or directors in a company to buy stock in the company, if they feel that it is under valued on a long term basis, even if that feeling is based upon information that only they have access to (project details). It is illegal for them to buy stock just before an acquisition or a big positive earnings surprise.

Looking at the allegations about Galleon, it seems clear that if the stories are true, the firm clearly broke insider trading laws by trying to get access to information about acquisitions, earnings announcements and other forbidden event-based information.

2. Does insider trading pay off?
Interesting question! At first sight, the answer seems to be obvious. Insiders know far more about the company than we do and should be able to leverage the information advantage into excess returns. The evidence, though, is surprisingly inconclusive. Studies that have looked at insider buying and selling as predictors of future stock prices find only a weak correlation, i,e., insider buying (selling) is not that good a predictor of stock price increases (decreases) in future periods.

One caveat about these studies is that they focus on the insider filings with the SEC. To the extent that the real insiders, i.e., the ones who are trading on real information rather than perception of value, will never register with the SEC, the suspicion is that these insiders make huge profits on their information.

Since Galleon is in the news, I decided to take a look at the returns that Galleon has made in recent years to see if they were able to convert their "illegal inside" information to higher returns. The Galleon Diversified fund, the flagship for the hedge fund, was up 22% this year, but is down 18% since its peak. Given the market performance over the period, the fund ranks close to the average. Across time, it is possible that Galleon made money using its access to "tips" from its moles in companies, but that does not seem to have generated a huge return.

I do not find it surprising. When you rely on tips from "insiders" for your investments, you generally find that four out of five tips never pan out (either because the information is bad or because the market reaction to the information does not follow the script), even when they come from those supposedly in the know. Insider trading is not a sure bet; it may not even be a good bet.

3. What should we do about insider trading?
I would like to live in a world where all investors have the same access to information and but I would also like to be able to go one-on-one against Lebron James. Life is not fair and investor access to information will vary across investors.

To me, the line between insider trading and savvy investing is a very hazy one, especially if you a short term investor. Analysts and investors often step across the line without even realizing they have.

I also think that banning insider trading is akin to laws forbidding alcohol or drugs. It does not make the problem go away but instead drives it underground and essentially leaves the profits from insider trading to those who are most unscrupulous among us.

I would suggest that we eliminate or at least reduce insider trading laws & restrictions and increase the transparency of the trading process. If you are trading on inside information but people can see you trading (and whether you are buying or selling), the benefits you will get will be time limited. Not only will this reduce profits from insider trading but also speed up how quickly prices adjust to information.

As a final note, insider trading cases provide excuses for the rest of us, who fail in our investing objectives. I have heard many small investors complain: "The reason I am not making any money on my portfolio is because the game is fixed." Enough of the self pity. The reality is that if your portfolio has lost money, insider trading is way down the list in terms of factors that caused those losses. In fact, my advice to those who worry about insider trading is simple. Trade as infrequently as you can and base your decisions on intrinsic value. Insiders hurt you only when you play their game, which is to try to trade short term on news (or what you think is news...) and rumors...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Equity Risk Premiums: An Update

As many of you are probably aware, I am fixated on equity risk premiums. To me they are at the center of almost every debate about equity markets - whether stocks are too low or too high, whether current market conditions are the norm or an aberration, and whether equity investors truly understand the risk associated with investing in equities.

I had a few posts during the crisis, where I noted that the implied equity risk premium for the S&P 500 had climbed at a rate never seen before in history during the twelve weeks between September 12, 2008 and late November. In fact, I reported an implied equity risk premium of 6.43% at the start of 2009, up from 4.37% at the start of 2008. The big debate at that point was whether this crisis had damaged investor psyches so much that it had caused a permanent upward shift in risk premiums, or whether this was just another bump in the road and that we would revert back to the 4% implied equity risk premiums, pre-crisis.

I have just posted an updated version of my equity risk premium paper online:
In the paper, I graph out the implied equity risk premium from January 2009 to September 30, 2009. On September 30, 2009, the implied equity risk premium stood at 4.86%. While I had anticipated at the start of the year that the premium would drift back down, I expected it to take much longer than 9 months. One more reason for constantly updating equity risk premiums! Markets are full of surprises.

The new debate that is unfolding is whether markets have gone up too far and too fast, thus exposing themselves to a correction. I don't know the answer to that question but it can be framed around the implied equity risk premium. If you think that the crisis should have changed people's attitudes about risk and that a 6% equity risk premium is the new steady state, markets are over bought and the correction will be painful (a 15%-20% drop in the S&P 500). On the other hand, if your view is that what happened last year is just part and parcel of equity risk and that investors will soon forget the scars and go back to the 4% risk premiums of 2007 and 2008, the bull market has a lot of steam left on it (a 10% up movement in the S&P 500). I am not giving away too much when I say that the long term equity risk premium that I am using for mature markets, when valuing companies, has been 5-6% since January 2009. At its current level of 4.86%, I am within reaching distance, but I will respond to the market on this number. I am not a market timer!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bond Ratings: Why, how and what next?

In the aftermath of the bond market calamities (for investors and issuing companies), the ratings agencies (S&P, Moody's and Fitch) have come under assault from all sides. Legislators and regulators have accused them of being too close to the companies that they rate, with the implication that companies/bonds are being over rated. Academics have piled on, arguing that there is little information in bond ratings and that ratings agencies offer poor and delayed assessments of default risk. Finally, a few former employees have come forward with claims that bond ratings, at least in some cases, are stale and not backed up by serious research.

I would like to at least step back and consider some broad issues related to ratings:

1. Why do we need bond ratings in the first place?
As long as there have been people on the face of this earth, there have been lenders and borrowers. For much of recorded time, a lender (money lenders in ancient times, banks in more recent periods) assessed the credit quality of a borrower and set the interest rate accordingly. It was the advent of the bond market in the last century that changed the dynamics and created the need for ratings agencies. When a company issues bonds and investors price these bonds, these investors do not have the resources to assess credit risk on their own. Ratings agencies stepped into the gap and provide this credit risk assessment. Thus, the ultimate service provided by bond ratings is to bond traders, and bond issuers benefit only indirectly.

2. What is the information content in a bond rating?
Ratings agencies have access to all of the financial information that the rest of us do - financial statements, past and present, analyst reports, industry analysis etc. In addition, they can ask for private information specifically related to default risk, which can then be used to finesse or modify the rating. The problem with the private information is that it comes from the management of the firm, which of course has an interest in providing more good news than bad news.

The simplest way to measure whether the market thinks there is information in a bond rating is to look at whether market prices of bonds change when their ratings are changed. The evidence there is mixed. While there is a consistent price change, with bond prices increasing (decreasing) on bond upgrades (downgrades), most of the price change seems to happen before the rating is changed. In other words, markets seem to anticipate ratings changes. That does not make ratings less useful but they are often lagged measures of default risk.

3. Is there a potential for conflict of interest and bias in ratings?
Going back to the origins of ratings, it is clear that bond buyers should be the ones paying for the ratings and they do so now, albeit indirectly. Ratings agencies are compensated by the companies that are rated, which does create a conflict of interest, though the conflict is nowhere near as intense as some other conflicts that bedevil us (such as auditors who have consulting revenue from the companies they audit or investment banks operating as deal makers & advisors on M&A deals). The price paid by companies is a relatively small one (3-5 basis points of the size of the issue) and it is not as if companies that are down graded can pull up stakes and refuse to be rated. (Let's face it. There are more ratings downgrades in a quarter than equity research analyst sell recommendations in a decade.) The price paid by companies is then passed on to bond buyers as a slightly higher interest rate on the bond.

There is a bigger potential for conflict of interest with mortgage backed securities and other bonds that are issued against pools of assets, not by companies by often by intermediaries. There, Moody's and S&P do have an interest in growing the market and attaching higher ratings does increase market growth, which increases future revenues and so on...

There is much talk now of changing this model but the alternatives are not that attractive. One is to charge a small tax on every bond sold, collect the proceeds in an entity (probably government run) which will then pay the costs to have all bonds rated. The question then becomes choosing the ratings agency (ies) to do the rating and the pricing mechanism (fixed price, auction). The other is to increase competition among ratings agencies, with the argument that competition will make them worry about getting rating right, though this would exacerbate the conflict of interest, at least in the short term.

4. What should we do going forward?
Before we pile on ratings agencies and blame them for our bond losses, we have to recognize that they were not the only ones to under estimate default risk. Most banks in developed markets made the same mistake, as is clear by the losses being written off on loan portfolios. Thus, I would not blame the ratings mistakes primarily on conflicts of interest or poorly trained ratings staff or some conspiracy the0ry too dastardly to behold. Rather, I think ratings agencies were caught up in the mood of the moment, just as the rest of world was, where housing prices always went up, people had permanently stopped defaulting and recessions were a thing of the past.

In closing, my fear is that we will throw the baby out with the bath water and make radical changes in the ratings process. Having valued companies in markets with bond ratings and in markets without, I can tell you with absolute conviction that I would rather deal with lagged and flawed bond ratings than no bond ratings at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Crisis Lessons: Presentation...

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I was working on a presentation reflecting the lessons that I learned from the crisis. I had also promised to post the presentation when it was ready. You can get it be clicking on the link below:

Market Revelations: Lessons learned, unlearned and relearned from the Crisis

While you can read about the specific lessons that I have taken away from the last year in the presentation, here are the general points I want to make:

1. These are the lessons that I have learned. In other words, this is my personal odyssey and I do not expect everyone to have learned these lessons, nor do I feel the urge to impose them on others.

2. The common theme across the many lessons is that I am much more wary about using past or historical data, whether it be at the company level (profitability, risk etc.) or at the macro level (equity risk premiums). Mean reversion, i.e., the assumption that numbers revert back to historical averages, has served us well, at least in developed markets for a long time, but a blind adherence to it can decimate companies and portfolios.

3. At a gut level, I feel that I have a better understanding of risk and the need for risk premiums now than before the crisis. Fundamentally, I believe that this crisis was precipitated by a belief that we can measure and control risk, when the nature of risk is that it cannot be ever fully measured or controlled.

4. I would not classify myself as a behavioral economist, but I am more willing to give behavioral finance a place at the table when we think about solutions to corporate finance and investment problems, after the crisis, than before.

The bottom line is that I feel humbled by all the things I do not know about finance and markets and excited at the prospect of exploring these things more.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Leveraged Buyouts

Yesterday's New York Times had a story (a sad one) on the troubles at Simmons, a mattress company with a long and illustrious history in the United States.
In short, the company was targeted for a leveraged buyout by Thomas H. Lee Partners, a private equity firm, in a transaction that went awry, partly because of miscalculations by the investors and partly because of the market crisis. The article is clear about who the "bad guys" in this story are and it is the private equity investors, who profited while a good company and its employees were destroyed.

I am always suspicious when the financial press sees things in black and white, since my experience is that life is full of shades of grey, but this article gives me a chance to vent about leveraged buyouts. If the message here is that private equity investors act in their self interest, my reaction is "Duh! Who does not?". If the message is that debt is the enemy, I am afraid the culprit is not Thomas H. Lee, but the tax code, which is tilted towards debt for some reason that I cannot fathom in pretty much every market in the world.

My problem with the way leveraged buyouts have been framed by both its proponents and opponents is the focus on leverage as the center of the transaction. To me, there are three components to a leveraged buyout:
a. The change in financial leverage: Changing the mix of debt and equity can help you exploit the tax code and increase your overall value (at the expense of taxpayers).
b. Control: In badly managed firms, changing the operating characteristics, i.e. investment and dividend policy, of the firm can increase value,
c. Public to private: To the extent that being a publicly traded firm forces you to make decisions to satisfy stockholders and analysts focused on the short term (at least in theory), going private may allow firms to make hard decisions that increase their value.
A good candidate for a leveraged buyout will derive value from all three levers. It will be an under levered, poorly managed firm, where there is a substantial gap between managers and stockholders.

In a blog post from November, I pointed to an extended treatise on the topic, where I look at an LBO transaction that failed, where Goldman and KKR tried to take Harman Audio private, and failed. My conclusion was that Harman was the wrong company to target for an LBO, because it did not have significant excess debt capacity, was already fairly well managed and a big stockholder was the CEO of the company.
What does this have to do with Simmons? I think that we are making a mistake when we assume that private equity investors are brilliant villains in LBO transactions. For every winner (like Thomas H. Lee in this specific transaction), there are many losers, and I would not be surprised if private equity investors are not net winners in this process.