Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Greed Kills" Investing Strategy

Albert Meyer, a former accounting professor from South Africa now based in Plano, Texas, brings a healthy dose of skepticism to stock analysis. He picks companies for the fund by starting with two basic rules.

First, Meyer rejects companies where stock-option grants represent more than 5% of the shares outstanding. He says that because of shortcomings in rules on how to account for options, the true cost to shareholders doesn't come through in reported financial numbers. Overly generous grants are so widespread that this rule eliminates more than 75% of the stocks in the Russell 3000 index ($RHK.X), according to Paul Hodgson of The Corporate Library, which tracks grants as part of its corporate-governance rating system.

Next, Meyer avoids companies where execs get too much pay. There's no strict cutoff. But he's unlikely ever to hold a company where the boss makes more than $5 million a year. That's about half of the $9.9 million in average compensation that CEOs at S&P 500 companies made in 2007, according to The Corporate Library.

From there, Meyer looks for qualities such as pristine financials, strong cash flow, good profit margins and reasonable dividends in businesses surrounded by some kind of protective moat. He's also a value investor who favors stocks that look cheap.
First-rate results
But wait a second. Whenever I focus this column on companies with highly paid CEOs, I'm told that these pay levels are necessary to attract the top talent. Doesn't Meyer run the risk of winding up with companies run by a bunch of second-rate leaders?

"It's a total scam to say, 'If we don't pay these salaries, we won't draw the talent,'" Meyer says. "That's not what I find. The companies we own pay modest salaries, and they do extremely well. They are not suffering because of a lack of high salaries."
Video on MSN Money
Say on pay © MedioImages
Aflac shareholders win 'say on pay'
The company's shareholders have become the first investors to have an official say on executive compensation.

Meyer's track record bears this out. Investments for managed accounts at his Bastiat Capital -- where he also shuns companies with greedy execs -- were up 43.4% from April 30, 2006, through the end of April this year. The S&P 500 was up 5.72% in the same time frame.

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences." - Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Four Mega-Dangers International Financial Markets Face

By Dennis J. Snower
01 May 2008 at 10:06 AM GMT-04:00

BOSTON ( -- Day after day new, alarming news emerges from the world’s financial markets, and day after day the public is surprised by how bad it is. But instead of wringing our hands, let’s ask ourselves an important, unconventional question: What is more surprising: that financial markets have turned from bad to worse, or that we continue to be surprised by each successive piece of adverse news?

I suggest that our repeated surprise should be more surprising. This issue is important, because if we were better at recognising the financial risks we face, we could do more to avoid them. If banks, investment houses, and American homeowners had done a better job in recognising the risks in the subprime mortgage market, we could have spared ourselves the current crisis.

Why does the public repeatedly underestimate the repercussions of the present financial crisis? The answer is simple: most of us are short-sighted; we can’t imagine a future that is radically different from the present. In particular, most of us don’t understand that economic events often unfold gradually due to the operation of important lagged adjustment processes embedded in the economy. The public, the media and politicians would do well to give them close attention. Lagged adjustment processes. After the Titanic’s hull was punctured, it took hours for its hull to fill with water; thus the passengers couldn’t imagine that it would sink.

In my judgment, there are currently four major dangers facing the world economy, and all of them are currently obscured by the fact they play themselves out slowly.

Four dangers

The first danger we have witnessed since August 2007: The subprime mortgage crisis gave rise to a liquidity crisis in the international banking system, due to uncertainty about who holds the losses. This is leading to reduced lending to firms and households. But that is not the end of the story, because the reduced lending will lead to reduced consumption and investment. With a lag, reduced sales of goods and services will reduce stock market valuations. And, with another lag, the lower stock market prices will – in the absence of any favourable fortuitous events – intensify the banks’ liquidity crisis.

The second danger lies in the dynamics of U.S. house prices. As more and more U.S. households find themselves unable to repay their mortgages, foreclosures are on the rise, more houses are put on the market, the price of houses falls further – with further lags – this leads to more foreclosures and declines in housing wealth. This dynamic process plays itself out only gradually, as households face progressively more stringent credit conditions and house sales gradually lead to lower house prices.

The third danger results from the interaction between wealth, spending and employment. As U.S. households’ wealth – in the housing market and the stock market – falls, their consumption is beginning to fall and will continue to do so, again with a lag. This decline in consumption is leading to a decline in profits, of which more is on the way, which in turn will lead to a decline in investment. The combined decline in consumption and investment spending will eventually lead to a decline in employment, as firms begin to recognise that their labour is insufficiently utilised. The decline in employment, in turn, means a drop in labour income, which, with a lag, leads to a further drop in consumption.

And that leaves the fourth (and possibly the nastiest) of the dangers, one that concerns the latitude for monetary policy intervention. As the Fed reduces interest rates to combat the crisis, the dollar is falling. This is leading to higher import prices and oil prices in the United States, putting upward pressure on inflation. The greater this inflationary pressure – which is currently in excess of 4 percent – the more difficult it will be for the Fed to reduce interest rates in the future, without running a serious risk of inflaming inflationary expectations and starting a wage-price spiral. U.S. firms and households will gradually recognise this dilemma and the bleak prospect of little future interest rate relief will further dampen consumption and investment spending.

Eventually, of course, the decline in spending will lead to a decline in inflation, but this will only happen with a lag. The longer the lag turns out to be, the longer the period over which the U.S. economy will endure stagflation, that is, a cruel combination of rising prices and falling aggregate demand. Much hinges on how persistent U.S. inflation is. More persistent inflation will inevitably give rise to higher inflationary expectations, leading gradually to higher inflation, and so on. It took central banks over a decade, in the 1980s and early 1990s, to get inflationary expectations under control, and the fruits of this battle are now in danger of being lost.

Global implications

The international financial crisis and the decline in the U.S. economy will inevitably have an adverse effect on the growth of the world economy. Europe and the emerging markets of Latin America and the Far East cannot fill the gap that the U.S. economy leaves. There exists no economic mechanism whereby a drop in the U.S. aggregate demand will be matched by a correspondingly large increase in aggregate demand elsewhere. Germany and other European economies highly exposed to the vagaries of international trade will certainly feel the pinch.

In the longer run, the prospects for the world economy look much brighter. Eventually U.S. house prices will stabilise, rising exports will help the U.S. economy recover, the fall in world demand for goods and services will reduce the price of raw materials, U.S. households will learn the importance of saving, and global imbalances will correct themselves. These rosy prospects lie in the mists of the future. Meanwhile, however, we are well advised to stay focused on the four dangers."

... let's just say the housing bubble affected the overall economy on the way up; it is sure to do so on the way down.

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences." - Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Social Security Inconvenient Truths

When Social Security (FICA) was introduced it was promised:

* Participation in the program would be completely voluntary.

* Participants would only have to pay 1% of the first $1,400 of their annual incomes into the program.

* The money the participants elected to put into the program would be deductible from their income for tax purposes each year.

* The money the participants put into the independent trust fund rather than into the general operating fund, would be used only to fund Social Security, and no other government program.

* Payments to the retirees would never be taxed as income.

The millions who have paid into FICA for years and are now receiving a Social Security check every month -- and who then find they are getting taxed on 85% of the money they gave to the federal government to save for them -- may be interested in the following:

* Social Security money has been removed from the trust fund and put it into the general fund so that Congress could spend it.

* The income tax deduction for Social Securitjavascript:void(0)
Save Nowy withholding has been eliminated.

* Social Security annuities are now taxed.

Now contrast this with the fact that Congress passed a 100% retirement benefit for members who have served at least one term.


"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences." - Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm