Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Credit Cards Follow Sub-Prime Mortgages in Downturn

Seems in addition to defaulting on mortgages, people are now "defaulting" on their credit card payments.

via The Big Picture:
"US consumers are defaulting on credit card payments at a significantly higher rate than last year, raising the prospect of problems in the stricken US subprime mortgage market spreading to other types of consumer debt.

Credit card companies were forced to write off 4.58 per cent of payments as uncollectable in the first half of 2007, almost 30 per cent higher year-on-year. Late payments also rose, and the quarterly payment rate - a measure of cardholders' willingness and ability to repay their debt - fell for the first time in more than four years."



But one "analyst"/columnist doesn't seem fit to worry:
"But it is not clear that the borrowers defaulting on their credit cards are the same people defaulting on their subprime mortgages, it added. This is in part because underwriting standards in the credit card sector have been more robust than in the mortgage industry.Also, many highly leveraged subprime borrowers, with little or no equity in their homes, may choose to default on a mortgage before losing their credit cards."


Yes, you read right: "underwriting standards in the credit card sector have been more robust than in the mortgage industry."

How many of us have received pre-approved credit cards in the mail? How many people have successfully gotten credit cards for their dogs?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Propaganda 101

Bob Wallace


How Propaganda Works
by Bob Wallace

"Once you base your whole life striving on a desperate lie,
and try to implement that lie,
you instrument your own undoing."

- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.


It's not hard to understand how propaganda works. You don't need a college degree, or to even to read any of those thick textbooks everybody hates. Everything relevant can be explained in one not-particularly-long article. And, I guarantee you, you must understand how propaganda targets you, to immunize yourself against the attempts.

Propaganda works by appealing to our most base, animalistic instincts. It does not appeal to our better nature, although one of the purposes of it is to convince us it does. It pretends to appeal to our reason, when in fact it appeals to our most primitive emotions. There is good reason for this: perception travels through the emotional brain first, to the rational brain last.

Specifically, propaganda works by appealing to three things: emotionalism, tribalism and narcissism.

I just mentioned perception travels first to the emotional brain, then the rational brain. This happens to everyone, including people who con themselves they are the most rational and intelligent of intellectuals.

As for tribes, we share with every nearly every animal in the world the instinct to form tribes, arranged in a hierachy, with a leader. We are group animals. The fact we look to a leader to take care of us is one of the most firmly established principles in psychology (if you don't remember anything else, remember that).

When anyone transgresses the taboos of a tribe, they can, and often are, ostracised or even expelled. An example? Say some people oppose a war. What happens? They are often called cowards and told to leave the country. Who hasn't heard the insult, "You're a coward! If you don't like it here, get out!" People who say such things think they're being patriotic; in reality they're acting like animals. Emotional, irrational, herd animals, prone to the fear and flight activated by propaganda. Individuals think; groups do not, and cannot.

Narcissism is our inborn tendency to see everything as grandiose or devalued, good or bad, with nothing in-between. It's why nearly every tribe in the world -- and nations are just tribes writ large -- called itself "the People," "the Humans," "the Chosen," "the Motherland," "the Fatherland," or "the greatest nation on earth," relegating everyone outside the tribe to a devalued non-people, non-human status (aka "collaterial damage"). No wonder it's so easy to kill the outsiders -- they're just not quite human.

When you combine those three concepts, you have the basis for all propaganda. If a leader of a tribe tells the people their goodness is under attack by insane, evil people who want to destroy them, they will react just like animals and attack. The Nazi propagandist Herman Goering noticed all you had to do to get people to march off to war is for the leaders to tell them they were under attack, denounce protestors as traitors exposing the tribe to danger, and the people would slander, ostracize and expell the protestors, and then tramp straight off to be slaughtered. He said this technique worked in every country of the world.

The Bush administration used exactly this technique to start two wars. Essentially they told the public that our goodness was under attack by insane and evil people who wanted to destroy us. See how it works? Tribalism, emotionalism, and narcissism.

Supporter of the war responded by attacking protestors as traitors -- trying to expell them from the tribe -- and marching off to war. It's altogether too simple, and too easy.

One man everyone should know is Edward L. Bernays, the American disciple and nephew of Sigmund Freud. He was for all practical purposes the founder of modern propaganda techniques.

Bernays despised most people and regarded them as his inferiors, especially because of intellectual or social claims. (See how it works? I just appealed to your emotions, and convinced you Bernays was attacking you. You fell for it, right?)

Bernays not only pretty much founded modern propaganda techniques, but was also the father of modern PR. Although, you could say they are same thing, and that there's really no difference between them.

In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…"

Remember that quote. Burn it into your memory. Bernays thought people should be ruled by an extremely small elite, who should manipulate them through propaganda. That means you. People who believe in the wonders of government, and that it is their friend, should think twice about it.

In another book, In Crystallizing Public Opinion, Bernays wrote how governments and advertisers can "regiment the mind like the military regiments the body." This can be imposed, he said, because of "the natural inherent flexibility of individual human nature," and suggested the "average citizen is the world's most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own 'logic-proof compartments,' his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction."

Bernays also thought "physical loneliness is a real terror to the gregarious animal, and that association with the herd causes a feeling of security. In man this fear of loneliness creates a desire for identification with the herd in matters of opinion."

Bernays claimed that "the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word…In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles in mass psychology." What Bernays called the "regimentation of the mind" is accomplished by taking advantage of the human tendency to self-deception [logic-proof compartments], gregariousness [the herd instinct], individualism [exalting their vanity] and the seductive power of a strong leader.

Bernays also expressed the opinion people "have to take sides...[they] must step out of the audience onto the stage and wrestle as the hero for the victory of good over evil." This also means appealing to our narcissism, our inborn tendency to see everything as either good or bad, with little or nothing in-between.

He also noted the need for people to feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. Again, this also means appealing to our narcissism, such as people claiming they belong to "the greatest nation on earth."

When people consider themselves as part of the Humans (by whatever name they call themselves), they exalt themselves. Still again, those outside the tribe are non-people, "collateral damage."

"Mental habits create stereotypes just as physical habits create certain definite reflex actionism," Bernays wrote. "...these stereotypes or clichés are not necessarily truthful pictures of what they are supposed to portray." Perception is everything, the truth matters little or not at all.

Now, let's boil all this down and see what we have:

Mass Man, the herd, cannot think, and is instead ruled by its feelings. The herd will look to a leader to save it. The best way to accomplish this is for the herd to feel it is under attack. The herd will draw together, expell those who see the truth and protest, and then march off to war.

The full quote from Hermann Goering? "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Tell the herd they are the Humans, or the People, or best of all, have God on their side. Paint their enemies as insane and evil. Again, this is appealing to people's narcissism, the tendency to see everything as either good (us) or evil (them). Evoke paranoia and hysteria in them by convincing them the insane evil ones want to conquer and destroy them. What will happen? You can get them to march off to war by the millions, just as Goering noticed. The truth doesn't matter, only the manipulation of perception.

To make it as simple as possible, everything that is needed for a successful propaganda campaign can be summed up in those three aforementioned words: emotionalism, tribalism and narcissism.

We con ourselves we are so advanced. In reality, the human race is stuck in One Million Years BC, except there's no Raquel Welch in a two-piece fur bikini.

I forgot -- there is one another component to sucessful propaganda: keep repeating the message over and over.

Financial Auditors - What are They Good For?

Deloitte & Touche gives American Home Mortgage a clean bill of health three months before it declares bankruptcy. Auditing's new battle cry - 'Remember the Enron'?

Bloomberg

Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) -- You think your job is tough? Think about the poor schlimazels from Deloitte & Touche LLP who blessed the books at American Home Mortgage Investment Corp., mere months before it went belly up.

The Deloitte accountants faced a crucial decision as they finished their audit work in March. Deloitte could resign and walk away. The firm could qualify its audit opinion by saying there was ``substantial doubt'' about American Home's ability to continue as a ``going concern'' through the end of the year -- as many short sellers already had concluded. Or it could give the company a clean opinion, expressing no doubt, which is what Deloitte did.

Five months later, on Aug. 6, American Home filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection, still brandishing the firm's clean audit-opinion letter.

There's a reason why you don't see auditors pursuing second careers as tarot-card readers. They wouldn't be very good at it. Yet every time an accounting firm renders an opinion on a client's financial statements, the auditing standards say it must evaluate the company's ability to continue as a going concern, and warn the public if it concludes there's ``substantial'' doubt, a term the rules don't define.

The home-mortgage industry's growing casualty list is a reminder: They're not very good at that either.

You almost have to feel sorry for the Deloitte accountants who drew this thankless task. While in hindsight it looks like they made a bad call, they also were in a pickle.

Dreaded Language

Tucked inside American Home's credit-facility agreement was a clause that said the Melville, New York-based company would be in default with lenders if its auditor tagged it with the dreaded going-concern language.

For the accountants, if they thought for even a second about this, it must have felt like staring into a house of mirrors. Had they made what proved to be the right call, they probably would have inflicted a mortal wound on American Home. Then again, looking back, a self-fulfilling prophecy would have spared investors from the company's April 30 public offering of 4 million shares at $23.75 each, the prospectus for which incorporated Deloitte's audit opinion. American Home's shares closed yesterday at 22 cents.

The auditing standards stress that auditors are ``not responsible for predicting future conditions or events,'' and that a company's sudden failure without any going-concern warning ``does not, in itself, indicate inadequate performance by the auditor.''

Auditors' Judgments

Even so, financial statements depend heavily on auditors' judgments about a company's forecasts. Look at almost any balance sheet, and the asset and liability values hinge on the company's ability to remain in business. Those numbers would look far different if the company were preparing for liquidation, with holdings listed at fire-sale prices.

That's why going-concern evaluations by outside auditors are a necessity. Auditors may not be particularly skilled at making them. When they do bark, though, you can bet shareholders will skedaddle, because then it's clear the problems lack plausible deniability.
...

The State of Newspaper Research

John Marshall details how he was singled out by the LA Times as someone who doesn't do his research:

Annals of Reporting
For a variety of reasons I try to stay out of the debates over blogs as such, what they're good or bad at and the rest. But this morning I was alerted to an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University. The sum of the piece is that the blogosphere is as rife with disputation as it is thin on information, or more specifically, reporting, writing that demands "time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance."

Now, fair enough. There's certainly no end of blog pontificating fueled by puffed-up self-assertion rather than facts. But Skube's piece reads with a vagueness that suggests he has less than a passing familiarity with the topic at issue. And I will confess to you that what really caught my attention was that in a column bewailing how blogs don't do any real reporting one of the four bloggers he mentioned was me.

Now, whether we do any quality reporting at TPM is a matter of opinion. And everyone is entitled to theirs. So against my better judgment, I sent Skube an email telling him that I found it hard to believe he was very familiar with TPM if he was including us as examples in a column about the dearth of original reporting in the blogosphere.

Now, I get criticized plenty. And that's fair since I do plenty of criticizing. And I wouldn't raise any of this here if it weren't for what came up in Skube's response.

Not long after I wrote I got a reply: "I didn't put your name into the piece and haven't spent any time on your site. So to that extent I'm happy to give you benefit of the doubt ..."

This seemed more than a little odd since, as I said, he certainly does use me as an example -- along with Sullivan, Matt Yglesias and Kos. So I followed up noting my surprise that he didn't seem to remember what he'd written in his own opinion column on the very day it appeared and that in any case it cut against his credibility somewhat that he wrote about sites he admits he'd never read.

To which I got this response: "I said I did not refer to you in the original. Your name was inserted late by an editor who perhaps thought I needed to cite more examples ... "

And this is from someone who teaches journalism?

Perhaps I'm naive. But it surprises me a great deal that a professor of journalism freely admits that he allows to appear under his own name claims about a publication he concedes he's never read.

Actually, if you look at what he says, it seems Skube's editor at the Times oped page didn't think he had enough specific examples in his article decrying our culture of free-wheeling assertion bereft of factual backing. Or perhaps any examples. So the editor came up with a few blogs to mention and Skube signed off. And Skube was happy to sign off on the addition even though he didn't know anything about them.

I grant you that the blogosphere needs better bloggers. But, as usual, the need for better critics seems even more acute.

--Josh Marshall

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What the Credit Crunch Looks Like On the Inside, Pt III

Ritholtz

Way back in the late 1990s into the early 2000s, a previously well regarded group -- stock analysts -- subtly shifted the objectives of their work. Previously, they plied their skills looking for stocks their clients and trading desks could make money buying and selling.

But things change, commissions shrunk from 10 cents per share to 6 to 3 to mere half pennies today. The old business model no longer applied. What rose in its place was a new model that emphasized not the trading of equities, but the investment banking fees that accompanied IPOs. Many analysts compromised their objectivity on the altar of banking fees. This was especially true in the Internet/Technology/Telecom space.

Thus, they went from being somewhat valued allies of the investor class to the guys helping to dump the dogs into an unknowing public's portfolios. Since then, many of this crowd has been vilified (Jack Grubman, Henry Blodgett, etc.), and the securities industry got Spitzerized to the tune of some $$1,387.5 Million dollars in fines (a deal I suspect they would do all over again if they could).

Fast forward to the early 2000s. Interest rates are at 46 year lows, and this time around, another group of shameless whores analysts are following the same playbook: The ratings agencies that gave their AAA blessings to the now defaulting alphabet soup of RMBS, CDOs, CLOs, ABX structured products that has so recently seized up the credit markets.

It was a simple case of pay-to-play to get rated. Portfolio's Jesse Eisinger goes into the ugly details of a surprisingly familiar story:

"Moody’s and S&P dominated for decades, and their business model was straightforward: Investors bought a subscription to receive the ratings, which they used to make decisions. That changed in the 1970s, when the agencies’ opinions were deemed a “public good.” The Securities and Exchange Commission codified the agencies’ status as self-regulatory entities. The agencies also changed their business model. No longer could information so vital to the markets be available solely by subscription. Instead, companies would pay to be rated. “That was the beginning of the end,” says Rosner.

It might come as a surprise, but rating credit is a heck of a business to be in. In fact, Moody’s has been the third-most-profitable company in the S&P 500-stock index for the past five years, based on pretax margins. That’s higher than Microsoft and Google. Little wonder that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is the No. 1 holder of Moody’s stock.

McGraw-Hill’s most recent financial report shows that S&P has profit margins that would put it in the top 10. Fitch Ratings, owned by the French firm Fimalac, is a distant third in market share but nevertheless has an operating margin above 30 percent, about double the average for companies in the S&P 500.

In 2006, nearly $850 million, more than 40 percent of Moody’s total revenue, came from the rarefied business known as structured finance. In 1995, its revenue from such transactions was a paltry $50 million. . ."

The entire article is well worth your time to read in full.

Yes, Moody's, S&P, and Fitch were complicit in what is slowly coming to be viewed as widespread fraud. However, there is more than enough blame for the failure of the credit markets to spread around. The ratings agencies fraudulent ratings -- I won't even bother with the word alleged -- are merely the tip of the iceberg.

As much as the whores credit agencies have a large share of responsibility in this mess, do not forget to save some blame for an even greater ethically challenged industry: those clever folks who work at Wall Street's biggest iBanks. As related by Reuter's Patrick Rucker, it seems that Wall Street often shelved damaging subprime reports. (Sweet!) Here are the details:

"Investment banks that bundle and sell home mortgages often commissioned reports showing growing risks in sub-prime loans to less credit-worthy borrowers but did not pass on much of the information to credit rating agencies or investors, according to some of those who prepared the reports.

The mortgage consultants, known as due-diligence firms, were hired by investment banks to make sure blocks of mortgages conformed to the mortgage seller's own standards. The studies provided a first glimpse of loan quality for ratings agencies and investors who do not normally see the full reports.

As the U.S. housing boom reached its crescendo in 2006 and investors showed a strong appetite for mortgages, lenders relaxed their underwriting standards, and millions of borrowers with poor credit records were able to obtain subprime mortgages as a result.

Default rates on many of those subprime mortgages are now rising, some borrowers face foreclosure on their homes, and investors in the mortgages face losses." (emphasis added)

At this point, we should expect to see a flurry of investigations into the rating agencies and the same slew of Wall Street firms that were involved in the last analyst scandal.

The saving grace for Wall Street maybe (emphasis maybe) that this was less of a "systemic fraud" than the 1998-2002 scandal. They may perhaps escape by merely jettisoning these bad actors, throwing them under the bus to save their own skins. Perhaps.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Trade with China: How Iraq *Should* Have Been Handled?

China's new revolutionaries: U.S. consumers,
by Nathan Gardels, Commentary, LA Times:

Who would have thought that tainted pet food and toys would threaten to unravel the authoritarian export model of Chinese growth that the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 was partly meant to secure? China's then "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution, could well imagine how political upheaval would derail China's stable path to prosperity. But it surely never entered his mind, nor that of his descendant comrades, that the fickle American consumer would one day become, as the students in the square wanted to be, the agent of revolutionary change in China.

In the name of sovereignty, China's leaders for a long time have gotten away with suppressing their own citizens while ignoring the get-gloriously-rich-quick corruption that has thrived in the absence of the rule of law. But, thanks to globalization, China's export reliance on the U.S. market has imported the political demands of the U.S. consumer into the equation. Americans won't hesitate to cut the import lifeline and shift away from Chinese products that might poison their children or kill their pets.

Unlike organized labor or human rights groups, consumers don't have to mobilize to effect change; they only have to stop spending. And their bargaining agents -- Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us -- have immensely more clout than the AFL-CIO and Amnesty International in fostering change in China.

Ironically, the United States' "most favored nation" trade treatment for China (and its later entry into the World Trade Organization), which labor and human rights groups so virulently opposed in the past, has become a Trojan horse. China's future is now so linked to the American consumer that Beijing will be forced to curb corruption and strengthen regulation through the rule of law or face the certain doom of its export-led growth. ...

For consumers to trust Chinese products, they must trust regulation of those products. And regulation cannot be trusted without the rule of law, which doesn't bend to bribery, fraud and quanxi (connections). ...

[T]he ultimate paradox of Deng's soft totalitarianism is that privatizing people's lives will ultimately deprive the authorities of their power. As more people come to enjoy private freedom, fewer will abide it being taken away. Globalization, it seems, has accelerated this process by forging a kind of objective coalition of the growing Chinese middle class and the American consumer in favor of the rule of law. ...

Savvy consumers are not likely to buy China's response of prosecuting or executing high-level officials -- "killing the chicken to scare the monkey." They simply want the lead removed from their children's toys or they will take their purchases elsewhere.

Of course, a move toward the reliable rule of law is not democracy, but it is a big step on the long march in that direction.

Some years ago, the once-famous but now forgotten dissident, Wei Jingsheng, lamented how the attention of global public opinion and that of most Chinese had shifted "from Democracy Wall [where Wei was arrested for putting up posters calling for democratic political reforms] to the shopping mall."

Now, especially as the spotlight of next summer's Olympics approaches, it seems the tables may be turning again.

Exit Rove: What Was His Strategy?

Joshua Green forNY Times

THERE is a paradox at the heart of Karl Rove’s tenure in the White House, and it is a key to understanding why he failed to remake American politics, despite ambitious plans to do so. In seeking to establish a lasting conservative majority, Mr. Rove violated one of the central tenets of modern conservative ideology: the idea that government cannot effectively refashion American society.

For decades, conservatives have inveighed against what they consider to be the hubris of liberals — the belief that regulations, laws and bureaucrats can contend with deep cultural forces. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York senator and a chastened veteran of the Great Society, liked to warn about government overreach by citing Rossi’s Law, so named for the sociologist Peter Rossi, who had declared that “the expected value for any measured effect of a social program is zero.”

Conservatives believe the Great Society programs that liberals pushed in the 1960s demonstrated that government engineering doesn’t work. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed, this critique goes, because liberals simply didn’t understand the limits of government’s power to transform culture.

Whether or not one accepts Rossi’s Law, there can be little dispute that Mr. Rove pursued his vision of a new political order with the activist zeal of a 1960s Great Society liberal. From the outset of the Bush administration, Mr. Rove aimed to create a “permanent majority” for Republicans, just as Franklin Roosevelt did for Democrats in the 1930s, and as William McKinley and his campaign manager Mark Hanna — Mr. Rove’s hero — did for Republicans in the 1890s.

As Mr. Rove sought a political realignment that would create a durable Republican majority, he seized on government as his chief mechanism. He tried to realign American politics principally through the pursuit of major initiatives that he believed would reorient a majority of Americans to the Republican Party: establishing education standards; rewriting immigration laws; partially privatizing Social Security and Medicare; and allowing religious organizations to receive government financing.

The only thing that united these government actions was the likelihood that they would weaken political support for Democrats. Social Security privatization would create a generation of market-minded stockholders. Pork-barrel spending on religious organizations would keep evangelical Christians engaged in the political process — and pry loose some African-American voters by funneling money to black churches. No Child Left Behind would appeal to voters who traditionally looked to Democrats as the party of education. And generous immigration policies would persuade Hispanics to vote Republican.

Mr. Rove’s entire vision for Republican realignment was premised on the notion that he could command government to produce the specific effects that he desired. But as a conservative could have predicted, his proposed policies unleashed a series of failures and unintended consequences.

Mr. Rove had extraordinary power within the administration to shape domestic policy. But pushing through many of his programs proved difficult. On Social Security and immigration reform, Congress and the country weren’t prepared to embrace his vision. Like a 1960s liberal in love with the abstract merits of a guaranteed income, Mr. Rove misread the mood of the country and tried to do too much.

Mr. Rove married a liberal’s faith in the potential of government to a conservative’s contempt for its actual functioning. This was the contradiction at the heart of “compassionate conservatism,” and it helps explain the tension between the president’s fine words about, say, helping those hurt by Hurricane Katrina, and his actions.

Conservatives don’t have a lot to celebrate these days. Mr. Rove’s attempt at a Great Republican Society has left his party in tatters and, in this sense at least, his influence will be felt long after George W. Bush has left the White House.

Of course, there is a bright side. If nothing else, Mr. Rove has strengthened the conservative critique of what happens when you try to engineer great societal changes through government policy. Perhaps conservatives can find some solace by telling themselves they were right all along.

Joshua Green is a senior editor for The Atlantic.

What the Credit Crunch Looks Like On the Inside, Pt II

Ritholtz
August 13, 2007
Dear Client:
As you undoubtedly know, the credit markets, along with most other markets, have experienced
a liquidity crisis in the past several weeks. Investor fear has overtaken reason and has induced a period
in which most securities have simply ceased to trade. We’ve all read the stories about one hedge fund
or another suffering losses related to subprime exposure and closing down or being rescued. This fear,
while warranted in some cases, has spilled over into the rest of the credit market and liquidity has dried
up all over the street. In addition, investment banks and securities firms are stuck with LBO deals
they’ve already entered into but cannot find buyers for the bonds so must inventory them themselves.
This liquidity crisis has caused bids to disappear from the market and makes it virtually impossible to
properly price securities or to trade them. High grade securities are trading like junk bonds as panicked
investors dump names like General Electric at Tyco‐like prices.
We have carefully monitored this situation for the past several weeks and have met regularly to
discuss the potential impact it may have on our clients. We had previously thought that the market
would return to some semblance of order and that our clients would not join in the panic.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. We are concerned that we cannot meet any significant
redemption requests without selling securities at deep discounts to their fair value and therefore causing
unnecessary losses to our clients. We contacted the CFTC today and asked for their permission to halt
redemptions until we can honor them in an orderly fashion.
Sentinel has always sought to protect your interests and since our inception in 1980, we have
never experienced a situation quite like this one. We will continue to monitor the markets and we will
raise cash as opportunities present themselves.
We understand that this will obviously cause inconveniences on your part however, at present,
we do not see an alternative and we don’t believe it is in anyone’s best interest if a run on Sentinel took
place and we were in a forced liquidation mode.
We value your trust in us these past 28 years and this has been a very difficult decision for us
and we understand the implications of this decision both on you and on Sentinel. We feel, however,
that this is the best way to assure you the best possible value on your investment.
We will remain in contact with you and update you as things progress.
Sincerely,
Sentinel Management Group, Inc.

What the Credit Crunch Looks Like On the Inside

Jeff Matthews
Monday, August 13, 2007
What’s Happening at Barclay’s?



It began innocently enough.

A few odd stocks started collapsing—falling really hard for two or three or four days in a row—on no apparent news.

The first such stock I noticed was Teleflex (TFX), a fine, New York Stock Exchange-listed industrial conglomerate whose share price hit a 52-week high of $85 one fine day in July, and then dropped almost 25 points in the next two weeks on absolutely no news.

Now, Teleflex happens to be buying a medical products company called Arrow International, with which I am quite familiar.

And reasonable people might argue that Teleflex is paying an exorbitant price for Arrow, given the fact that Arrow’s core product line (something called central venous catheters—basically fancy straws that allow doctors to inject fluids into the body) are losing share to other types of catheters, thus calling into question Arrow’s ability to grow revenue in line with other medical products companies.

Furthermore, Teleflex plans to sell one of its existing businesses to help fund the Arrow transaction. Given the seize-up in the credit markets and the swift reduction in the number of private equity firms able to buy businesses on margin the way people used to buy houses in Orlando, Vegas and Sacramento, reasonable people might worry that Teleflex will get a less-than-super price for its existing business.

Thus, the market might be spooked into thinking that Teleflex was buying high and selling low, simultaneously.

At least, that was my best guess as to why shares of Teleflex had begun to crater.

But along came more Teleflexes—stocks suddenly dropping as though somebody’s life depended on it.

Ashland, Computer Sciences, Office Depot, CIT and Robert Half, among others, all experienced sudden, sharp drops under relentless selling pressure—most of them on absolutely no new news.

Sure, Office Depot had missed earnings, and yes Computer Sciences had been juiced upwards on private equity takeover speculation. But the decline in these and the others was quite sudden, in tandem and without let-up.

What on earth, then would a chemical company have in common with a high-tech computer services outfit, an office products retailer, a finance company, a headhunter and a diversified conglomerate?

In every case, their single largest publicly disclosed investor is identified as Barclay’s Bank.

Now, Barclay’s is as big as a bank can get—a little volatility in the credit markets is not likely going to cause a problem leading to the wholesale liquidation of assets, and certainly not assets that presumably belong to investors in Barclay’s equity funds, not the bank itself.

Still, Barclay’s is seeking to buy ABN Amro for what is widely considered to be a ridiculous price. And it would appear that Barclay’s has been selling stocks out of its funds in a get-me-out fashion.

Is it all an innocent coincidence, or is it one of the following:

1) Some trader on Barclay’s equities desk hit the wrong button on their computer;
2) The portfolio managers at Barclay’s all decided to sell stocks they had owned in size for a long time into a weak tape.
3) Something else is going on at Barclay’s that hasn’t come to light.

I’m willing to bet the answer is Number 3.

Any informed observations would be most welcome.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Our Biggest Iraq Enemy: Ourselves

Cincinnati Post

Helping enemies in Iraq
By Martin Schram

For years, the list of enemies targeting U.S. troops in Iraq has included Sunni insurgents, Shiite militia and, more recently, a group that calls itself al-Qaida of Mesopotamia. The enemies list in Iraq also includes outsiders such as Iran and Syria, who President Bush and Vice President Cheney have blamed for providing those combatant enemies with weapons that are used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. Now there is one more, according to infuriating new intelligence.

An investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified a new culprit who has been shipping into Iraq massive numbers of weapons that U.S. officials now fear are being used to kill American troops. It is our Pentagon.

The Defense Department has no clue about what happened to at least 190,000 guns - 110,000 AK47s and 80,000 pistols - that it gave Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, according to a GAO report released Monday. And U.S. officials now concede that at least some of the missing weapons are now being used to kill American troops.

"One senior Pentagon official acknowledged that some of the weapons probably are being used against U.S. forces," the Washington Post reported Monday. "He cited the Iraqi brigade created at Fallujah that quickly dissolved in September 2004 and turned its weapons against the Americans."

The statistics are both shocking and enraging. The Pentagon cannot account for 110,000 of the 185,000 AK47 rifles it gave the Iraqis; 80,000 of the 170,000 pistols; 135,000 of the 215,000 items of body armor; 115,000 of the 140,000 helmets.

According to the GAO, these security-assistance programs are traditionally overseen by the State Department. But during the reign of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his department insisted it could provide the flexibility that could best do the job. Those were the days when nobody said no to Rummy, so it came to pass.

But the GAO report chronicled haphazard and often nonexistent property-accounting procedures as the Pentagon rushed to create, arm and equip Iraqi security forces. Pentagon officials told GAO investigators they didn't have enough personnel to keep track of the weapons they were handing out in Iraq and that their computers were inadequate for the task. Defense officials didn't create central records to track the weapons until December 2005.

Responsibility for the massive failure of accountability lies with the general in charge of creating and equipping the Iraqi security forces. It was Gen. David Petraeus, who is now in command of the entire U.S. military effort in Iraq. Petraeus, who until this finding has always enjoyed an excellent reputation in military circles, will be providing that much-awaited Sept. 15 report on the status of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.

The GAO report of the Pentagon's failure to account for the weapons reads like a classic in witless bureaucracy. "During our review, DOD officials expressed differing opinions about whether DOD regulations applied to the train-and-equip program for Iraq," the report said. The officials were unable to decide which set of procedures applied to their mission - so they basically used none of them and got no guidance from superiors. As of last month, the report said, defense officials still had not identified which set of procedures to use.

No wonder the final two recommendations in the GAO report are so pathetically obvious that, written in officialese, they could pass for comic-strip satire. Hardly "Pogo," but maybe "Doonesbury Meets Stephen Colbert": "Determine which DOD accountability procedures apply or should apply to the program. After defining the required accountability procedures, ensure that sufficient staff, functioning distribution networks, standard operating procedures and proper technology are available to meet the new requirements."

But the bottom line is no laughing matter. It is tragically infuriating and sadly ironic. This was a war that began to go badly when the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army but never thought to guard that army's arsenals, which were looted for later use against our troops by insurgents and militia.

Now this. We may never know how many of our courageous men and women fighting in Iraq were killed or maimed by unfriendly fire from friendly weapons, guns that were made in, and supplied by, the U.S.A.

Separate But Equal

Today both Barack and Hillary were reported as supporting "Civil Unions" of gays but not marriage. Barack all but conceded that since in his view "civil unions" would differ from marriage in name only, that his stance dissolved into a semantic debate.

Separate But Equal?

Liquidity Collapse: The Shareholder Letter You Won't See

From Jeff Matthews:

The Shareholder Letter You Should, But Won’t, Be Reading Next Spring



Dear Shareholder:

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I am referring to your board’s decision to approve a massive share buyback and huge special dividend last summer, when the buzzwords going around Wall Street were “returning value to shareholders.”

Why we did it was this: a smart banker from Goldman Lehman Lynch & Sachs came in, all gussied up and looking sharp, and made a terrific PowerPoint presentation to the board with multi-colored slides that showed how paying a special $10 a share dividend, plus buying back a bunch of our stock at the 52-week high, would “return value to our shareholders.”

We should have thrown the fellow out the window, along with his PowerPoint slides, but what happened was, my fellow board members and I were so busy deleting emails from our Blackberries that we just didn’t notice the last slide showing (in very tiny numbers) the “Trump-style” debt we would be incurring to do so.

We also missed the footnote showing the fees that would go to Goldman Lehman Lynch & Sachs for the courtesy of their showing us how to wreck our balance sheet.

Those fees, I am embarrassed to say, amounted to more money than we made the quarter before we “returned value to shareholders.”

But the fact is, we’d been getting so much pressure over the last few years from the hedge fund fellows who own our stock for ten minutes tops, not to mention the so-called “analysts” on Wall Street (around here we call them "Barking Seals"), to do something with the cash...well, the truth is we just couldn’t stand answering our phones any more.

So, in order to finally start getting things done instead of spending all day explaining to these hedge fund fellows and the Barking Seals on Wall Street why we weren’t “returning value to shareholders,” we decided to do the big buyback and the big dividend.

And for a few weeks there, it was pretty nice.

The stock jumped, the phones stopped ringing, and the Barking Seals started congratulating us on the conference calls instead of asking us when we were going to get rid of our cash.

Unfortunately, not only did getting rid of our cash and taking on a huge debt load NOT “return value” to you, our shareholders, it actually crippled the company for years to come.

For starters, as you know, the aftermath of last summer’s sub-prime debt crisis is forcing perfectly fine companies to liquidate businesses at fire-sale prices…but we can’t take advantage of those prices, because we have no cash. And thanks to the debt we incurred “returning value to shareholders,” the banks won’t loan us another dime.

Secondly, as you also know, we’ve had to lay off hundreds of loyal, hard working employees to pay the interest expense and principal on all that debt, because unlike Donald Trump, we actually repay our debts.

Furthermore, as you probably don’t know, we’ve also scaled back some interesting research projects that had great long-term potential for the company, but were deemed too expensive to continue in light of the fact that we have no cash.

Now, I’d feel a heck of a lot worse about all this if we were the only company suckered into buying our stock at a record high price and paying a big fat dividend on top of it.

But I’m happy to report there were others who also did the same stupid thing.

For example, Cracker Barrel, the restaurant chain that depends on people having enough money for gas to get to its stores along Interstates across America, spent 46 bucks a share for 5.4 million shares of its stock early last year to “return value to shareholders.”

Cracker Barrel’s stock now trades at $39.

And Scott’s Miracle-Gro, whose business is so seasonal it loses money two quarters out of four, put over a billion dollars of debt on its books with the kind of special dividend and share buyback we did.

Health Management Associates—a healthcare chain that can’t collect money from about a quarter of the patients it handles—paid shareholders ten bucks a share in a special dividend to “return value to shareholders” and then missed its very next earnings report because of all those unpaid bills and all that new interest expense it was paying.

Oh, and Dean Foods, a commodity dairy processor with 2% profit margins, returned all sorts of value to shareholders early last year—almost $2 billion worth—just before its business went to hell in a hand basket when raw milk prices soared.


So, you see, everybody was doing it.

And boy, do I wish we hadn’t.

Liquidity Collapse: Advice for Rich Uncles

From the Big Picture:

I am going to relate an anecdotal tale that, as far as I can tell, is true. The actual story matters much less than the lessons it teaches, clearly enunciated at the end of this post.

Several years ago, I helped a firm develop a new Distressed Debt/CDO department. The history of the group that I brought in was a strong ability to trade distressed paper, and the expertise to package and resell it institutionally.

Initially, this worked out well for the firm. They managed to do a number of deals, getting their names on the offering books as co-leads with the likes of Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs. Very prestigious, huge fees, all good stuff.

After I left, I kept hearing all sorts of sketchy tales about the group: big turnover amongst staff, disagreements about costs, fights with the bond desk, issues with compensation. I chalked this angst up to the usual Wall Street "eat what you kill" philosophy.

Then I heard several stories: That the CDO desk was pitching their product to retail brokers, that this debt was getting placed in the accounts of individual investors where it had absolutely no business going into. Distressed debt and CDOs are sophisticated complex instruments that require a great of expertise in understand, and I was sure neither the retail brokers nor the clients knew these things.

Then, I hear tales that a retail broker from a rather disreputable shop joins the firm. He takes to the CDOs like a fish to water, placing them everywhere and earning huge fees. The rumor I keep hearing is that he even placed a $10 million block with a family member.

You can see where this is going: The $10 million dollar investment is now worth, best as anyone can figure, about $3 million -- assuming anyone can find a bidder. The commission on that one placement was a cool $700,000. The relative/client has gone postal, litigation threatened, all manner of ugliness. You just know this is going to end badly . . .

Now, its time for your 3 lessons to learn from this misadventure:

1. Advice for Investors: Never buy anything you do not understand. This is a very simple rule, regularly ignored by all too many people. If you don't understand what a company does, DO NOT BUY IT. If aan offering doc comes with a 157 page set of disclosures, unless you understand all the risks it contains, stay far far away.

2. Advice for Brokerage Firms: Never place institutional products with retail investors: As a rule, they do not have the sophistication to understand the product (see rule #1). More importantly, when this stuff gets offered to retail clients, it likely means INSTITUTIONAL CLIENTS HAVE REJECTED IT. Hence, the need to stick it somewhere other there where its supposed to go is likely proof that its got some bad mojo attached.

3. Special Advice for Rich Uncles: Don't give money to relatives, instead buy them a new Rolex. This sounds like a quite odd bit of advice, but follow my logic. When you give, say $10M ,to a relative, you are making a major financial decision based not on the merits of their skill set and experience, but rather, on a coincidence of blood relations.

This is not the basis for making a significant financial planning decision.

However, you then must speak to your nephew/niece/relative, with their parents (one of whom is likely to be your sibling). In front of these relatives, explain that your money has been carefully placed in the hands of professionals you have very painstakingly selected after great study of their long term track record (which the kid obviously does not have).

But in order to help them get started on their chosen career, here is a small present: This Rolex Watch (I suggest this one).

Tell them to wear it with pride: It will subtly convey how successful they are to their employers, peers and most importantly of all, their sales prospects. It reeks of their soon-to-be inevitable success.

Wish the best of luck in their new career! And walk away knowing that the $5,000 you just blew saved you untold millions in losses, and no end of grief at all future family gatherings

You'll thank me . . .

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Important Finace Quotes to Remember

Culled from The Big Picture

"Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent."
— John Maynard Keynes

"If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem."
— JP Getty

"You try to be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy."
— Warren Buffett

"A gold miner is a liar standing beside a hole in the ground."
— Mark Twain

Monday, August 06, 2007

Language as Philosophy: Proscriptive vs Descriptive

I received the following from a friend:
Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins
weren't invented in England or French fries in
France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads,
which aren't sweet, are meat. We take English for
granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find
that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are
square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor
is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers
don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't
ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the
plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one
moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn't it
seem crazy that you can make amends but not one
amend? If you have a bunch of odds and e nds and get
rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers
praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does
a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the
English speakers should be committed to an asylum
for the verbally insane. In what language do people
recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by
truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run
and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be
the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are
opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
of a language in which your house can burn up as it
burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling
it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not
computers, and it reflects the creativity of the
human race, which, of course, is not a race at all
That is why, when the stars are out, they are
visible, but when the lights are out, they are
invisible.


The methods by which a language evolves to me serves as an analogy to many other ideas, especially the concept of "top-down" vs "bottom-up" control.

Take dictionaries, for example. The fall into two broad types - I'll call the "Proscriptive" and "Descriptive".

Proscriptive dictionaries describe language as it "should be" used. Descriptive dictionaries describe how a language *is* used. Which is right?

At one extreme we can reject all change and mercilessly hammer the dogmatic: words should be used/spelled as described. All variations are unwelcome. While this in theory would lead to a "stale" language over time, the real result is that it will never happen. People will speak however they like, dictionary be damned.

But the other extreme, the Descriptive dictionary is just the opposite, it intends to report on how language is used in real life. When this is taken to extreme, then no variation would be "incorrect". By simply speaking a word or spelling it however one likes, then the usage would be "correct" by deign that it was just "used" that way. With each person speaking/spelling however one likes, communication would break down.
(I'm obviously glossing over the approach used by Descriptive dictionaries, in that they tend to document the most common usages, not every variant.)

Strangely, society seems to slowly rock forward by mediating between these two extremes. Thus language tends to be a very "democratic" creation and as the example above illusrates, continue to appear to be a product of a committee of madmen.

Telecom Cheif: No One Wants $10 DSL

Techdirt

Remember the story back in June about how AT&T had extremely quietly started offering $10 DSL as was required in its deal to buy BellSouth? The company was promoting many other, more expensive, DSL options, but the only way you could get the required $10 version was if you specifically knew to ask about it. Broadband Reports points to an interview from an Atlanta newspaper with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson where he's asked about the $10 DSL. The interviewer points out that no story about AT&T resulted in a more irate response from AT&T customers as its story about the hidden offer for $10 DSL, suggesting that this was a huge issue for AT&T customers. Stephenson's response? First he denies that the company made it hard to find, and then he says that they're not promoting it because customers don't want it. This, despite the clear response from customers to the very newspaper who was conducting the interview. Then, he basically admits that the $10 DSL doesn't work very well, saying that they don't promote it because they don't want to give customers a product that sucks. Of course, he says that as if it's not his company that has quite a bit of control over whether or not the product sucks. Yes, that's right. AT&T actually thinks you'll believe that they're hiding their cheap broadband offering because, seriously, who wants cheap broadband when more expensive broadband is available? Of course, this isn't a new strategy from AT&T. Back when it was SBC and refused to offer naked DSL, the claim was that customers didn't want naked DSL either, despite the success many other companies were having with it, and numerous articles with people clamoring for it. It appears that AT&T has figured out that when there's really no competition, you get to decide what it is your customers really do or do not want.

ATMs in Churches

After all, isn't this really what religion is all about?

Time

It's All Fun & Games Until Someone Loses a Bridge

How ironic is it that tonight’s scheduled groundbreaking for a new Twins ballpark has been postponed? Even the stadium barkers realize it is in poor taste to celebrate the spending of half a billion on ballparks when your bridges are falling down. Perhaps this is a sign of shame. If so, it is welcome. Shame is overdue.


Crooks & Liars

Finance: Greed and Fear

Jeff Matthews is Not Making This Up

What Happens in Sub-prime…Gets to Spain Really Quickly

“How does this happen?” somebody asked me this weekend.

That somebody was my wife, and she was wondering out loud how a financial institution such as Bear Stearns could get caught in a sub-prime debt crisis that pretty much everybody in America, including my dog Lucy, knew was coming.

It’s a great question.

On the one hand, it’s inexplicable. How could grownups decide that buying paper written by unscrupulous mortgage brokers with no documentary evidence that income or assets or creditworthiness are as stated would be a good way to invest their client's money?

What makes a well educated veteran who lived through the Long Term Capital melt-down ten years ago think nothing of leveraging forty-to-one a portfolio of sub-prime paper backed by overpriced houses next to Interstate 80 in Sacramento?

How does a wise-guy bond maven who as recently as April 12th got a fawning article (“Prospering in an Implosion; Subprime Market's Fall Plays to the Strengths Of a Bold Contrarian”) and his photo alongside his wife, his children and his yacht, in the New York Times, hit the wall in June, freezing investor redemptions and putting the yacht up for sale?

The complex answer involves newer age MBA-type concepts such as alpha and beta coefficients and bond strategies beyond my comprehension, along with older-fashioned realities such as leverage and margin calls.

The simpler answer, however, is the fact that these markets of ours vacillate—over seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years and decades—from greed to fear and back to greed again

When markets get fearful, no news headline is positive: wars are bad for consumer confidence, Fed rate cuts are proof-positive that the next Great Depression is at hand, and all corporate earnings reports, no matter how strong, seem not quite good enough.

When markets get greedy, however, the opposite holds true. Every headline is positive: wars stimulate the economy; Fed rate cuts feed the liquidity machine; while all earnings reports, no matter how poor their quality, become excuses to bid up the underlying stock.

When greed takes hold, investors become inured to risk and simply make up whatever they want to make up that helps them justify the risks they’re taking.

Lest you think I exagerrate that last point, recall that six brief months ago, when the domestic housing market had frozen solid and the counter on the ticking time bomb that was the sub-prime mortgage mess was fast approaching “zero,” the solace of highly levered bond market players in this particular cycle was a catchy phrase stolen from the Las Vegas advertising slogan, “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”

Now, whatever you might think of an entire U.S. city marketing itself as a haven for adulterers, “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” is one terrific slogan, packing as it does the entire Rat-Pack lifestyle into seven words—not one of which actually refers to smoking, drinking, gambling and, yes, whoring, but which together imply all those activities and more.

And from those seven words came the rather hopeful catchphrase of the market wise-guys whose 40-to-1 leveraged portfolios depended entirely on the continued inflation of the housing bubble in order to bail out all the unqualified buyers whose paper they owned in one form or another:

“What Happens in Sub-Prime Stays in Sub-Prime.”

We heard it on CNBC and read it in bond briefs from Wall Street’s Finest. Hey, it was catchy!

Thus, with a brief, memorable and entirely false sentence did an entire world of bond mavens dismiss the fact that what they owned was upwards of a trillion dollars of garbage that had only temporarily been transformed into something better than garbage by the magic of Wall Street paper-shuffling and the waving of Moody’s Magic Ratings Wand.

Imagine their surprise, then, when National City Corp stopped making stated-income “liar” loans long after the liars had stopped asking for a loan; when IndyMac began charging higher rates on mortgage loans despite lower Treasury bond yields; and American Home Mortgage simply shut down.

But it should have come as no surprise.
...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

W Omerta

Sidney Blumenthal

Omertà (or a code of silence) has become the final bond holding the Bush administration together. Honesty is dishonorable; silence is manly; penitence is weakness. Loyalty trumps law. Protecting higher-ups is patriotism. Stonewalling is idealism. Telling the truth is informing. Cooperation with investigators is cowardice; breaking the code is betrayal.