Thursday, December 31, 2009

The market value of Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods has been in the news in these last few weeks, though not in the way he has been in the past. As his personal travails have mounted, his endorsements have dropped off. Now comes a study by two professors at UC Davis, looking at the companies that sponsor Tiger.
They find that the collective market value of these firms dropped $10-$12 billion between November 27, the fateful day when Tiger drove into a fire hydrant outside his house, to December 17 (thirteen trading days later).

Note that Tiger is not the first high profile athlete whose market impact has been studied. A study of Michael Jordan's announcement that he would return to basketball (after he retired and tried baseball for a year) resulted in an increase of 2% in market value of his sponsor firms. In fact, an earlier study of firms endorsed by Tiger Woods in his glory days found that Nike and American Express gained about 1% in market value around the endorsement dates.

As an interesting aside, the UC Davis study also found that three firms, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf, Gatorade, and Nike, fared worst during the period after the Woods scandal came to light. Accenture, a consulting firm, showed no signs of loss in value. I would take this as an indication that Accenture has been wasting its money all these years, using Tiger Woods as a spokesperson.

On a more general note, I think this incident points to both the upside and downside of using celebrity endorsements. While there is a commercial benefit, it has to be weighed off against the potential cost of celebrities behaving badly and affecting the sponsor's reputations. For firms like Nike, both the benefits and the costs are large, since their customers are more likely to be swayed by celebrity endorsements and misadventures, but the net effect is likely to be positive. For firms like Accenture, I really do not see the net plus of using celebrity endorsements. As a business, it is unlikely that I pick my management consultant, based upon an endorsement by Tiger Woods.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Greece, EU and more on Implicit Backing for Debt

Building on the theme of my last post, i.e., that implicit guarantees for debt are common and potentially dangerous, Greece offers an illustration of both the upside and downside of implicit guarantees.

Greece has been in the news as both S&P and Moody's have lowered its sovereign rating, from A- to BBB+ (for S&P) and from A2 to A1 (for Moody's). The harsher downgrade from S&P drew Greece's ire:,dwp_uuid=2b8f1fea-e570-11de-81b4-00144feab49a.html
Questions have been swirling about Greece defaulting and how the rest of the EU will react to potential default.

Taking a longer term view, though, Greece's debt travails are a test of the EU as implicit guarantor. I visited Greece in 1998, before the Euro came into being, to talk about valuation and at the risk of infuriating Greeks, the country was more an "emerging" than a "developed" market. The Greek currency, the Drachma, had little power outside the domestic market and Greece had a sovereign rating of BBB- (below investment grade) in 1995.

Becoming part of the EU and adopting the Euro as currency in 2002 improved the credit standing of the Greece, Spain and Portugal. While some of the improvement can be attributed to the fiscal discipline required by the EU (including restrictions on budget deficits), some of it can also be traced to the belief that the stronger countries in the EU would provide backing in the event of debt problems.

The bigger question is whether this umbrella has been a net plus for the EU countries as a whole. For Greece, Portugal and Spain, the benefits clearly have exceeded the costs over the period. For Germany and France, the effect has been more ambiguous, with the benefits of having a bigger and more prosperous market weighed off against the costs of the subsidies offered to the weaker economies. The subsidies also skewed economic activity in strange ways:

Collectively, having one currency has made it easier for businesses to operate across Europe and those European firms that have adapted to this reality have emerged as more vibrant. While it has made Europe more competitive with the US, the big winners over the last decade have been the emerging markets, especially India and China. The biggest cost, as I see it, has been the bureaucracy that the EU has created to regulate itself and the companies that operate within its borders. In a dynamic global economy, putting more shackles on European companies will not make them more competitive.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dubai and the "implicit" guarantee

In the last two weeks, we have seen the damage wrought by the potential default of Dubai World, a Dubai-government controlled company that funded some of the most extravagant projects on the face of the earth over the last decade.

While the magnitude of the default was large, it is interesting that it has shaken markets as much as it has. After all, there have been other large loan defaults in markets over the decades. So, why the panic? I think the reason lies in the unraveling of what I would call the "implicit guarantee".

What is the implicit guarantee? Consider a standard loan agreement, where a lender assesses a borrower's credit worthiness in determining how much to lend and on what terms. Through the ages, though, lenders have been willing to lend to borrowers who may not meet their credit worthiness tests, because their loans are backed up implicitly by others with deep pockets. Thus the money lender who granted a loan to the wastrel son of a wealthy merchant was trusting in the "implicit guarantee" of the father to pay back the loan; family honor was assumed to trump the absence of a legal obligation.

So, what does this have to do with Dubai World? Dubai is a city-state, with limited resources and economic capacity. The projects that were funded with the loans showed little potential of generating the cash flows needed to service the debt. However, Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, which has significant oil wealth and lenders assumed that the UAE would step in and provide backing, when the payments came due. At least so far, that has not happened.

Why does this have global consequences? Let's face it. A significant proportion of all lending is based on implicit guarantees. From bondholders in companies that are too big to fail (where the government is the implicit guarantor) to banks that lend to troubled family group companies (expecting the parent group to step in and save them), it is the implicit guarantee that allows for the lending. To those lenders, the Dubai World default is the stuff of which nightmares are made. The initial worry was that other implicit guarantors would use this crisis as the opportunity to walk away from their implicit obligations. While that has not materialized, it should serve as a wake up call to those who have been cavalier about implicit guarantees.

What is the bottom line? I am not suggesting that implicit guarantees are necessarily bad but they can pose a danger when too large a proportion of the debt in a system is dependent on them. Since none of the parties involved - the lender, borrower and implicit guarantor - make the obligation explicit, it is possible for them to misjudge the extent of their indebtedness and for investors to make the same mistake. I have seen many Asian and Latin American family group companies that have little or no debt on their balance sheets but have unconsolidated subsidiaries with massive debt on their balance sheets (backed up by the implicit guarantee). If we assume that these firms will honor their implicit guarantees, they should be treated as highly levered firms.