Merrick Pet Care (“Merrick”), a portfolio company of Swander Pace Capital, announced that they had “acquired” (parens will be important later) Pet Appeal, Inc. (d/b/a Castor & Pollux Pet Works) (“C&P”).  Terms of the transaction were undisclosed.  For the C&P brand, and the pet owners that rely on their products, this should be welcome news.   The marriage of these two companies makes a tremendous amount of strategic sense and offers new life for the organic pet food sales and marketing company.

Merrick was acquired by Swander Pace in February 2011.  The company manufacturers and markets the Merrick 5-Star, Before Grain and Whole Earth Farms brands of dog and cat food.   Merrick products are marketed as “natural”, a segment of the pet food continuum that felt the impact of the recession but whose growth is expected to outpace the total industry over the next five years — 11% versus 4%, respectively according to Packaged Facts.

In addition to its capital, Swander Pace brought its experience in growing Eagle Pack Pet Food to the transaction.  Since the Merrick deal closed, the company has been hard at work reformulating itself from head-to-toe.   The “new Merrick” is due to launch in June 2012.  Think of it as trying to birth a U.S. version of Champion Pet Foods.  Merrick products will focus on sourcing ingredients from local and regional American farms and providing customers quality assurances through control of their supply chain.   I believe controlling your production is a differentiator that matters to the premium customer segment that is willing to pay more for their pet food.

When Merrick was sold the “anchor” of significance in its process was the excess production capacity at its owned manufacturing plant.  Merrick’s volume was modest but certainly not enough to justify having your own mint purpose-built facility in the “Helium Capital of the World”.  As such, Merrick has been out and about talking to pet food marketing companies looking for volume to drive production economies of scale.  The merger with C&P (the transaction was consummated as a stock swap with C&P’s founder and equity sponsors moving on to the combined board of directors)  solves that problem.

The merger of Merrick and C&Pis expected to be compelling.  In combination, the company can now offer all major sales channels multiple brands that bridge the natural and organic pet food spectrum.  Notably, C&P is the top selling brand in natural grocery, a channel where Merrick appears has no presence to the best of my knowledge.   Logic would suggest that Merrick will try and leverage C&P’s natural channel brand reputation to enter a second brand into the channel.  Additionally, C&P suffered from a poor margin profile due to the high cost of inputs and outsourced manufacturing burden.  As a result, the company was short on available dollars to drive SKU turns in major retailers through marketing and promotions.  Merrick’s manufacturing capabilities should provide some relief to that conundrum and gain the combined business economies of scale in purchasing, logistics and operations, freeing up dollars to drive demand.

While this transaction provides the C&P customer base with a lifeline, it also continues to beg the question — does the pet food customer care about organic, relative to natural, biologically appropriate, or other demonstrable statement of quality?  If so at what volume level does the traditional CPG pet food company also care about organic?  Notably, both C&P and Merrick where unable to attract the attention of major pet food consolidators at attractive prices, which returns us to the rule of them that you need $100 million in sales to be interesting to this constituency.   In combination you can see how the “new Merrick” has a chance to eclipse this threshold.  The unanswered question will be whether the formulations are differentiated enough to command a premium multiple at exit.   In the words of the famous 1980s band Asia — Only Time Will Tell.

/bryan

“Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year.  It’s just not really widely reported.”

— David St. Hubbins, Spinal Tap

During the period spanning 2H2008 to 1H2009, I enjoyed a steady stream of inbound calls from companies seeking debt.  About half of those calls were from people thinking that I had something to do with a bank that made loans; the balance were from businesses, large and small, seeking additional capital to fund their operations.   Most of them were beyond help, due to the state of their business and/or collateral.  However, a small handful were beyond help, not because they were bad credits, but because the national banking system achieved a level of gridlock not seen in my lifetime, or probably anyone’s for that matter.

The market panic caused a significant contraction in available debt.  Market prices for even high quality credits trading on the secondary market plummeted (30% – 40%); default rates spiked (a 400% increase to ~ 13% in December 2008); spreads widened materially (+400 BPS on Commercial Paper, one of the lowest risk financial investments); capital ratios increased (Tier 1 capital requirements for lenders increased from 4% in May 2009 “Stress Test” to 7% at Basel III); and bank numbers contracted (active cash flow lenders went from 154 in 2007 to 18; FDIC has closed approximately 300 banks as a result of the recession).   No wonder people could not get a loan.

The above should be no surprise to anyone who follows the financial news.  However, today, some 12 months removed from those panic induced calls, people look at me quizzically when I tell them that debt is in fact available.   The looks I receive are a cross between “what you talking about Willis?” and the glare my grandfather bestowed on me when he thought I was pulling his leg.   Yes, debt is available, but like spontaneous combustion it’s not really widely reported.

To be clear, a significant portion of the business ecosystem is still unable to access debt.  Asset based loans remain widely available, with lower advance rates, but there are a lack of lending institutions that write check sizes under $5 million.  For those banks that remain in this market, many of them continue to be saddled by under performing real estate portfolios and credit standards that are harder to crack then getting into the wine cellar in the presidential war bunker.   As such, loans for small business remain very hard to come by, and this will continue for some time.  However, debt for large middle market businesses is not only widely available, but the trend has turned silly as banks seek to invest (no loans no loan revenue) as much of their available capital with the highest quality credits.  Eventually, competition will drive these banks to begin moving down the size and quality stack until the lower echelons are again able to access cost effective debt capital.

One prime example of debt market health is the availability of leveraged dividends.  A leveraged dividend involves taking out debt to pay, as you might expect, a dividend.   In short, a significant percentage of capital is not remaining in the business, it’s going in to the pockets of shareholders (often times private equity funds) with the liability remaining at the corporation.   When leveraged dividends are widely available, it is the first sign of debt market excess.   Now consider that over $40 billion of leveraged dividend recaps have been declared in 2010, according to S&P.   These levels exceed 2005 totals and are competitive with 2006/2007 volumes, the base of the last market peak.  The shareholders of HCA, Dunkin’ Brands, Burlington Coat Factories, Ascend Learning, Getty Images, Pelican Products, and Petco have been the chief beneficiaries.   While many of these companies operate in attractive industries that are “recession resistant” (health care, education, pet retail), many of them are not owners of highly predictable recurring revenue streams that would put a lenders credit committee at total ease.

Likely a better measure is what I am seeing in the market as it relates to debt issuance.   Based my purview, the credit market remains bifurcated.  However, as a company’s trailing twelve months (“TTM”) Earnings Before Interest Taxes and Depreciation (“EBITDA”) approaches $10 million, it becomes much more widely available.  Further, in the last 6 months, we have seen a trickle down effect.  In 1Q10 the benchmark was $15 million in TTM EBITDA, while today it is in the +/- $8 million range and goes lower, albeit not much, for companies that are in non-cyclical industries and have predictable recurring revenue streams and performed well throughout the recession.  A caveat is that if EBITDA has spiked materially over the last twelve months, a three or four year average is applied to establish “baseline” EBITDA.   It also helps if the company is backed by a third party equity provider.

What is also notable is that bank hold sizes have gone down considerably.    What this means is I am seeing syndicate deals on transactions that we would traditionally see a lender signal source.    Companies seeking $100 million loans are ending up with 5 – 7 banks in their credit versus 1 – 2 pre-meltdown.  This means it is actually easier for $10+ million TTM EBITDA businesses at the lower end to get credit than at the higher end, as you don’t need to get the entire credit industry on board with your transaction.    I realize this is backwards, but welcome to the current credit market reality.

Finally, availability does not necessarily correlate to volume.    Currently, lenders are seeking a minimum of 40% of enterprise value be in the equity account.   Therefore a company that is valued at 6.0x TTM EBITDA can only get up to 3.5x leverage, and more likely 3.0x.   Thus, no meaningful EBITDA means no meaningful debt.

Net net, we are not in a flush lending environment by any means, due in part to government imposed capital requirements, but debt is available if you fit in the current sandbox.

/bryan

 

 

 

 

Some 15 years ago (maybe more) I read “Diet For A New America”, the expose of America’s factory farms, written by John Robbins, the then heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune.  The book opened both my eyes and mind with respect to the agriculture industry in the U.S.    While the book did little, at the time, to change my dietary habits, it was central to shaping my relationship with food, for the better, in the long run.    This blog post is unlikely to do much to actually change our circumstance in the short term, but, like Robbins,  I believe we need to begin with a recognition and acceptance of the problem; from there change can emanate over a realistic time horizon.   With that I offer up my plan for saving capitalism as we know it:

1.  Tort Reform – I suspect you are now scratching your head.   This plan begins here? Yes it does.   I  don’t purport to know who is telling to truth when Rep. Tom Price says the cost of unnecessary litigation taxes the health care system $650 billion annually or if this figure is only $56 billion as Harvard Public Health Professor Michelle Mello estimates, and in fact I don’t really care.  What I do know is your unhindered ability to bring a lawsuit drives up the cost of nearly everything.   More significantly, it undermines all sense of accountability in our society.   We have become a nation that expects something for nothing; our sense of entitlement is, for lack of a better word, gross.   Procedural limits and damage caps would not only reduce costs but it would change the way we view ourselves.   Tort reform would restore the concept of work ethic in America.  Consider it the end of the free lunch, with apologies to Harry Butler (you can Wikipedia that one).

2. Address Obesity – The cost of obesity to the American economy is huge — hundreds of billions of dollars.   However,  for me it is less about the direct cost to the health care system (again), and more about the indirect cost, which are borne by employers in the form of higher costs and lost worker productivity.  Let’s face it, the average American is going to have to work both harder and longer in the future to pay for our nations debt.    We can’t do that if society is unable to return to a reasonable health standard.   Further, the high cost of health care dissuades innovation and new company formation.   We will not solve obesity as its roots are genetic, but we can promote industry and incent individuals to address the problem.  Maybe if we, as a nation, can reduce our dependency on processed foods, it will provide a necessary injection to our domestic agriculture base let alone help us do our jobs better.  Productive workers are happy workers.

3. Term Limits/Return of the Welfare State – I have a political science minor, but I am no expert on government; I haven’t lived through enough political regimes to be credible.  However, our political system has clearly become a soap opera that is equal parts partisan politics and tomfoolery.   The net effect is we end up with policies that address the lowest common denominator.   Further, long standing incumbents in key positions of power act like they know what is in the best interest of the people who are telling them to do just the opposite.   Our life has been reduced to 90-days of negative campaign ads every other year.   We need new ideas and responsive political representatives in government.  Term limits favor meritocracy, encourage competition, reduce bureaucracy, and control the influence of interest groups.   However, term limits are not enough, we also need to return significant rights to our states.   We are no longer a homogenized population whose needs can be universally addressed by policies at the national level.  States are better situated to devise and implement policies that meet the needs of its residents.   By empowering people to deal with problems locally you build a sense of community.

4. Underwrite the New Manufacturing Economy – Currently, capital flows follow collateral and cost effective business models.   Without ties to a deep pocket, capital intensive businesses have little hope of getting off the ground.   Capital expenditure has become a “dirty word”.  However, the manufacturing base is a critical employer of our middle class population, and it is vanishing because of our adversity to invest in real assets.   Our need for instant gratification limits our growth.   Further, the current labyrinth of federal grants currently funding the manufacturing industry favors those who are well enough off to pay for lobbyist to influence policy development and employees to process the paperwork to garner it.  The rich are simply getting richer.  The poster child of the current regime is Tesla Motors, hardly a start-up manufacturing business but your tax dollars are paying to build their manufacturing facility and Tesla’s venture investors thank you.  We need real venture capital for fundamental manufacturing innovation and micro-lending to leverage the available equity investment.   Re-energize manufacturing and you begin to address America’s unemployment problem and restore our sense of self worth.

5. Reign in Consumer Credit – Let’s face it, we are a consumer driven economy and one that is prone to spending beyond our means, well beyond our means.    In fact, as a nation we have over $950 billion in credit card debt and  14% of disposable income goes to service that debt — just service it, not repay the principal.  The average household with credit card debt has a revolving balance of $15,788.  Credit card companies and consumer lending organizations help facilitate over indulgence by enabling people to borrow beyond levels that they can reasonably pay — zero down mortgages anyone?   Further, credit card fees and adjustable rate mortgages penalize low wage earners who do not have collateral or the track record to get the most cost effective credit or refinance.  Reign in credit and you increase accountability, you also reduce a regressive economic force in our society thereby narrowing the  wealth gap.   Cheap credit also creates asset bubbles which influence our economic cycle to the negative when they burst.  Finally, the fees that would no longer be going to pay for monthly interest charges could go to actually paying the backlog of unpaid taxes ($300 billion annually).  When you care about your country, you actually don’t mind paying your fair share for what it provides you.

If we boil this down my Rx for America comes down to restoring our nation’s pride.  Pride in yourself, your family, your role in your community, your role in society, and your ability to positively impact the economic system.   Pride that comes from doing an honest days work and receiving a fair and honest wage in return.  Pride from doing the right thing for society by accepting responsibility for your own health and actions.  Pride in paying your own freight.  Pride from the fact that your elected officials actually represent your interests.  From pride comes trust and from trust comes a sense of purpose that extends beyond the individual and to the collective.  Together we can move mountains.

Pie in the sky?  In totality yes, but saving our economic system a trillion dollars annually is not easy.  If you look at each of these issues in isolation, they are winnable battles.  Win them all and you save America.  And no I am not running for office.

/bryan

 

I’ll readily admit that I don’t know much about inflation.  It’s hard for my generation to appreciate the concept since the majority of our wage earning years have been characterized by a general absence of an inflationary cycle.   Since I graduated from business school in 2000, inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U)  has not breached 5%.   In fact, over the course of 2009, we experienced considerable deflation, with negative growth in the CPI-U for eight months of the year.

So why is it that I am holding inflation indexed bonds in my portfolio?  That is a good question.   The reason I went into TIPS six months ago, was my belief that inflation was inevitable.   The unprecedented amount of liquidity that has been injected by the U.S. government in an effort to stabilize and re-energize the economy requires it.   Or does it?

As a general rule, when excessive liquidity is injected into the market place with an rapidity it leads to an inflationary cycle.  The logic equation is that the recipients of that cash will find themselves with an excess inventory of funds and bid up the prices of goods and services.  The sellers of those goods and services find themselves cash rich and pass along the favor.  The declining value of the currency causes people to part with these excess funds as opposed to holding on to them.   As evidenced by the graphs below — M1 (the money supply) and a trade weight currency exchange index (DTWEXM) — these very conditions are in play right now.  The money supply expanded by more than $1.7 trillion in 2009, more money than is necessary for transaction purposes.

So why is it that we find ourselves with sustained low inflation despite excess liquidity?  Notably, the process of inflation is not precipitous, especially in a complex economy and during a period of economic decline.  It is not hard to fathom an entity, be it a person, business, fund, etc., holding excess liquidity (read: hoard cash) out of fear despite the erosion of value resulting from falling currency rates, because the alternatives are less attractive.   The media often refers to this as the “money on the sidelines”.   Despite a strong economic recovery as measured by the stock market, people remain fearful of future problems stemming from the bloated balance sheet of our economy, and, as a result, they continue to be more than happy to hold onto their monies, even if they are less precious tomorrow than today.    One only needs to look at consumer spending figures and read about wage stagnation to see evidence of this pattern of behavior.

Additionally, economic meddling exacerbates the realization of inflation by delaying capital outlays.  Bailouts of individuals and institutions mean they can postpone deleveraging events and calls on collateral.   Notably stimulus packages spread out spending over a longer time horizon which prolongs the effect.   Further, much of the current stimulus sits on bank balance sheets in the form of excess reserves — money that provides savers assurance that their collateral is safe.  Because this money is sitting idle, since banks are not lending, the drop in the velocity of money has offset the dramatic increase in the supply of funds.

Despite these realities, the conundrum will not last.  We are talking monetary physics here after all.   If one is to believe the great economist Milton Friedman, the peak effect of on economic growth of excess liquidity will be felt between 18 – 30 months after the rapid expansion of the money supply.  Further, the impact on consumer prices will then be felt a further 12 – 18 months downstream, meaning, in monetarist terms, the inevitable spike in inflation would occur sometime in late 2011.

Whether you subscribe to Freidman’s paradigm or not, it is easy to conclude that that when banks start to lend, the velocity of money will increase and inflation will follow as a result.  Since the recovery is expected to be slow and bumpy, it is not hard to envision that the velocity of money will remain low throughout 2010, keeping inflation in check until late 2011 at the earliest.   Further, high unemployment and excess production capacity will keep wage growth in check (not hard to imagine) further muting inflationary pressure.   Finally, if you believe Bernanke the government could, at its discretion, unwind the special lending programs, pull back the reserves and sell of the securities it has purchased, thereby avoiding the problem of monetary expansion all together.

However, in my opinion inflation will likely be realized sooner than Freidman would  have predicted.    Notably, the Fed cannot put the brakes on the program as contemplated without risking pushing us back into a recession.  This is highly political, so nothing will be done until it is clear that we are out of the woods.   As a result, the money will remain in the system allowing for velocity to increase sooner than anticipated.  Further, I expect there to be political pressure both from within and abroad for us to inflate our way out of our current deficit.   This would be achieved by the Fed allowing inflation to increase while holding interest rates low.  The net impact would be negative cost of borrowing on an inflation adjusted basis.  This would stimulate both borrowing and spending.  Further, wages would increase, which in turn would increase the tax base, thereby enabling the government to pay off its massive deficits.   This is too seductive a solution for politicos to keep their hands off, especially if the President’s approval ratings continue to dwindle.   However, this program is hard to enact in a periods of high unemployment, so the recipe is not ideal.

That all being said, it seems clear we are not headed for double digit inflation anytime soon.   Our current deflationary cycle is still in effect and the combination of other factors — falling commodity prices currency valuations, fear, low velocity of money, high unemployment, etc. — will insulate us from significant systemic shocks.  However, expect modest inflation to return in the medium term and be seen in markets were capacity is constrained first.

/bryan

gekkoAndrew Lahde might not be a name you know well, but you should.  Lahde was the sole principal at Lahde Capital Management, a small California hedge fund that returned between 866% and 1000% (depending on who you believe) within a year betting on the decline of the sub-prime mortgage market.  And then he called it quits — at the peak of the market.   Ladhe tapped because he, well, hated his job.

Lahde, an MBA from the Anderson School at UCLA, honed his skill not at Goldman Sachs,  Morgan Stanley, or some big name hedge fund, but from the more modest platforms of Roth Capital, Gerard Klauer Mattison, Kayne Anderson Rudnick Investment Management and TD Waterhouse.

In November 2007, he called the forthcoming decline of the U.S. financial services industry, our domestic currency, and the global equity markets.  The problem was nobody knew who he was.  He had no platform.

So today we remember and salute Lahde by re-publishing his farewell missive, dated October 17, 2008, that someone called the “best thing written since Don Quixote. The letter address a broad range of topics, and I don’t support all of his positions, but it is worth the read, because it serves as a reminder of how disconnected we became from reality.

Enjoy.

/bryan

Today I write not to gloat. Given the pain that nearly everyone is experiencing, that would be entirely inappropriate. Nor am I writing to make further predictions, as most of my forecasts in previous letters have unfolded or are in the process of unfolding. Instead, I am writing to say goodbye.

Recently, on the front page of Section C of the Wall Street Journal, a hedge fund manager who was also closing up shop (a $300 million fund), was quoted as saying, “What I have learned about the hedge fund business is that I hate it.” I could not agree more with that statement. I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.

There are far too many people for me to sincerely thank for my success. However, I do not want to sound like a Hollywood actor accepting an award. The money was reward enough. Furthermore, the endless list of those deserving thanks know who they are.

I will no longer manage money for other people or institutions. I have enough of my own wealth to manage. Some people, who think they have arrived at a reasonable estimate of my net worth, might be surprised that I would call it quits with such a small war chest. That is fine; I am content with my rewards. Moreover, I will let others try to amass nine, ten or eleven figure net worths. Meanwhile, their lives suck. Appointments back to back, booked solid for the next three months, they lookforward to their two week vacation in January during which they will likely be glued to their Blackberries or other such devices. What is the point? They will all be forgotten in fifty years anyway. Steve Balmer, Steven Cohen, and Larry Ellison will all be forgotten. I do not understand the legacy thing. Nearly everyone will be forgotten. Give up on leaving your mark. Throw the Blackberry away and enjoy life.

So this is it. With all due respect, I am dropping out. Please do not expect any type of reply to emails or voicemails within normal time frames or at all. Andy Springer and his company will be handling the dissolution of the fund. And don’t worry about my employees, they were always employed by Mr. Springer’s company and only one (who has been well-rewarded) will lose his job.

I have no interest in any deals in which anyone would like me to participate. I truly do not have a strong opinion about any market right now, other than to say that things will continue to get worse for some time, probably years. I am content sitting on the sidelines and waiting. After all, sitting and waiting is how we made money from the subprime debacle. I now have time to repair my health, which was destroyed by the stress I layered onto myself over the past two years, as well as my entire life – where I had to compete for spaces in universities and graduate schools, jobs and assets under management – with those who had all the advantages (rich parents) that I did not. May meritocracy be part of a new form of government, which needs to be established.

On the issue of the U.S. Government, I would like to make a modest proposal. First, I point out the obvious flaws, whereby legislation was repeatedly brought forth to Congress over the past eight years, which would have reigned in the predatory lending practices of now mostly defunct institutions. These institutions regularly filled the coffers of both parties in return for voting down all of this legislation designed to protect the common citizen. This is an outrage, yet no one seems to know or care about it. Since Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith passed, I would argue that there has been a dearth of worthy philosophers in this country, at least ones focused on improving government. Capitalism worked for two hundred years, but times change, and systems become corrupt. George Soros, a man of staggering wealth, has stated that he would like to be remembered as a philosopher. My suggestion is that this great man start and sponsor a forum for great minds to come together to create a new system of government that truly represents the common man’s interest, while at the same time creating rewards great enough to attract the best and brightest minds to serve in government roles without having to rely on corruption to further their interests or lifestyles. This forum could be similar to the one used to create the operating system, Linux, which competes with Microsoft’s near monopoly. I believe there is an answer, but for now the system is clearly broken.

Lastly, while I still have an audience, I would like to bring attention to an alternative food and energy source. You won’t see it included in BP’s, “Feel good. We are working on sustainable solutions,” television commercials, nor is it mentioned in ADM’s similar commercials. But hemp has been used for at least 5,000 years for cloth and food, as well as just about everything that is produced from petroleum products. Hemp is not marijuana and vice versa. Hemp is the male plant and it grows like a weed, hence the slang term. The original American flag was made of hemp fiber and our Constitution was printed on paper made of hemp. It was used as recently as World War II by the U.S. Government, and then promptly made illegal after the war was won. At a time when rhetoric is flying about becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy, why is it illegal to grow this plant in this country? Ah, the female. The evil female plant – marijuana. It gets you high, it makes you laugh, it does not produce a hangover. Unlike alcohol, it does not result in bar fights or wife beating. So, why is this innocuous plant illegal? Is it a gateway drug? No, that would be alcohol, which is so heavily advertised in this country. My only conclusion as to why it is illegal, is that Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other addictive drugs, than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers. This policy is ludicrous. It has surely contributed to our dependency on foreign energy sources. Our policies have other countries literally laughing at our stupidity, most notably Canada, as well as several European nations (both Eastern and Western). You would not know this by paying attention to U.S. media sources though, as they tend not to elaborate on who is laughing at the United States this week. Please people, let’s stop the rhetoric and start thinking about how we can truly become self-sufficient.

With that I say goodbye and good luck.

All the best,

Andrew Lahde”

poohIt’s hot, too hot for my liking.  I’m sleeping in my basement with my dogs, while my hometown enjoys a record heat wave.  While laying awake at night stewing in my own juices I began running through some old blog posts in my head and thought it might be worth revisiting the status of the financial markets.

Over the past three weeks, we have seen another unprecedented run in the DOW and S&P 500.   On July 10th, I began to ask myself if we were headed back into the abyss as the DOW seemed intent on testing the 8,000 barrier once again.   On its way there, it apparently got spooked and went the other direction, breaking through 9,000 with ease.   On a percentage basis, the DOW ran 12.6% from July 10th to July 31st.   This move is rather consistent with the way stocks behave during significant economic contractions, in that they are prone to high levels of volatility and can swing excessively.

To understand the reason why that is, we need to review what a stock price really is.  We know it is the discounted value of all the future earnings associated with that ownership instrument.   Those projected streams are subject to two main risks — macroeconomic risk and company execution (let’s exclude investor sentiment for the moment), to be revisited in another entry).  When stocks as a herd run down, the causation is usually macroeconomic uncertainty, as opposed to company specific factors.   Since the impact of macroeconomic conditions on forward earnings is a science lacking a high level of precision, corrections can be significant as clarity increases.   Said differently, as our financial system was melting down with great rapidity last winter you had an over correction to the downside as equity analysts predicted a massive impact of our structural problems on forward corporate earnings.   As second quarter (2009) earnings were released these past two weeks they came with a number of “positive surprises”.  However, these were not surprises at all in my estimation, but rather poor forecasting to begin with.   Coupled with some positives on the consumer confidence (consumer confidence index has doubled off the lows; new home sales increased 11% in June), treasury spreads have increased (spread between 10-year and 3-month increased nearly a full percentage point, meaning people were beginning to favor longer term instruments) , unemployment (job loss increased, but the pace of job loss slowed), economic growth (ISM manufacturing index topped 50, above which means growth) and banking system stability, the market ran quickly to its current position — aided of course by the media.

With that explanation behind us, we can no turn our attention to where does the DOW go from here.   The truth is, I don’t know, but my inkling is that we don’t have much room for upside right now.   My basic premise rests upon the reality that corporate earnings surprises were largely based on the realignment of costs with revenue opportunities; there was no real growth of the top line.  As such, we continue to contract, albeit at a slower rate.  Until we can truly rightsize consumer sentiment, we will struggle with generating real growth.

Further, there are significant structural hurdles.

  • Industrial Production.  Based on Federal Reserve disclosures, nearly one-third of our manufacturing capacity remains idle.   This is the lowest rate of production since the Fed started to record this data.  The last parallel we can find was 70.9% in December 1982.   The picture is just as bleak on a global level.  Such excess capacity cannot be rationalized quickly and is more likely to result in price based competition, which can only lead to further calamity.   On the plus side there appears to be very little inventory in the channel, as companies have moved aggressively to cut cost.  However, until trade and inventory credit loosens further, it will not rebound.
  • Tax Base.   Across the board the domestic economic system is facing an economic shortfall of catastrophic proportions.  The U.S. government has spent nearly $2.7 trillion this year, versus collections of $1.6 trillion.   In cumulative, state government deficits total $120 billion.   Forty nine states require balance budgets however. (Vermont is your holdout).  Personal income taxes have dropped by over 25%, with no quick path to renewal.   Yet, we somehow need to find ways to underwrite huge government programs and keep the lights on at the local level.  The imbalance is massive and budget gaps will result in further market disruption.
  • Consumer Sentiment.  As the consumer goes, so goes the economy given our asset lite service based model.   The problem is the consumer is underwater and expected to remain so for some time.   Jobless rates have reached double digits and it will take years for reabsorbtion.   Over 4 million Americans have been looking for work for more than six months, an unprecedented level.   Retails sales were down a further 5.1% in June versus a projected 4.5%.    We have yet to experience the wave of personal bankruptcies that will surely arrive as people walk away from their mortgages and face the music on their mountain of personal credit card debt.
  • Banks.  The banking system remains unhealthy, though the risks of a full scale collapse remains unlikely.   Deep skepticism with respect to real estate will result in regional and local market lending dislocation.   Rather than facing loan losses head on, banks are preferring to extend and pretend on the consumer level.   Without dependable credit consumers and businesses cannot grow.

Net net, it is not at all clear where growth is going to come from.   However, it is clear that we have found bottom, as evidenced by the slowing declines.  More than likely we are in for an extended period of sideways, with growth coming from stimulus and government programs (e.g., cash for clunkers, health care reform).     This will be jobless recovery with  companies surviving on lean diet of capital expenditures.   No one is forecasting robust growth.   In short I can’t see much upside.  Further, if this downturn has fundamentally changed consumer behavior, than the market will continue to shrink and stock prices will follow it down.

/bryan

solar eThe dark clouds that loomed over our economy appear to have dissipated, but the sun is still not shining.  Even though second quarter economic data have brought hope for a steady economic recovery in late 2009, there are still systemic issues that require our attention; these issues have been brought on, in part, by  efforts to keep the economic ship afloat.

The good news for business owners and operators, however, is that they can once again expand their focus – keeping both day-to-day and strategic growth and liquidity issues top of mind.  To help with this always-complicated juggling act, I offer five core realities that are essential today – especially since the brave new world we once knew may have been lost in the storm clouds of 2009.

  • Taxes Will Increase – In order to underwrite the tab for our massive stimulus and bailout programs, taxes will have to increase.  While it is a foregone conclusion, based on recent campaign rhetoric, that capital gains taxes will increase along with income taxes on the highest income earners, keep your eye on H.R. 436 (“Certain Estate Tax Relief Act of 2009”), better known as the Pomeroy Bill.  This legislation was deigned to restrict perceived abuses of estate and gift planning through the use of business entities.  The Pomeroy Bill, among other things, proposes to eliminate any discount for lack of control and marketability on transfers of non-controlling interests in family-controlled entities.  The net effect will be to drive valuations and taxes up, which will diminish the value of family limited partnerships as an estate planning strategy.
  • Changes in Accounting Will Impact the Bottom Line – A number of GAAP changes are currently under discussion, and they are designed – not surprisingly – to increase the amount of taxes paid by businesses and limit their ability to book losses.  The most concerning change for many is the contemplated repeal of last-in-first-out (LIFO) accounting.  LIFO has a dampening effect on net income because of a cumulative downward impact on inventory valuation.  LIFO helps minimize taxes in a period of rising prices if the most recently purchased inventory is used to calculate the cost of goods sold.  A repeal of LIFO would result in higher taxes in the current period as well as in back-tax obligations and future inventory management challenges.
  • Inflation Will Rise and the Dollar Will Fall – Quantitative easing, or the purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds by the Federal Reserve, is an inflationary measure that has put pressure on the U.S. dollar.  As evidenced by recent price retrenchment in the bond market, interest rates are rising and inflation is building.  The good news is that this inflationary cycle appears predictable.  Businesses should begin taking steps to adjust prices and lock in labor rates where possible in order to avoid the negative consequences of changes in real income.  As we all know, persistent inflation has the ability to once again undermine the functioning of our economic system.
  • Now is the Time to Recruit Talent – National unemployment will likely peak around 10%. While the Pacific Northwest has held up reasonably well relative to the rest of the country, there is talent aplenty seeking new opportunities.  Now is the time to consider upgrading your human capital in areas where you might be vulnerable.
  • Don’t Take Your Eye Off Your Bank – While the national banking picture appears to have stabilized, more than 300 banks remain on watch by bank regulators.  Most of these are regional banks in markets where housing prices have decline precipitously.  Talk to other business executives and agents to understand who is lending, and begin to build relationships with back-up lenders in case your line is pulled or reigned in for reasons beyond your control.

For those seeking growth capital or liquidity, multiples remain near their lows; this is, in part, due to a slow lending environment.  While we wait for the markets to thaw, try to get ahead of the curve on the issues we’ve mentioned above.  If you can do that, you stand a better chance for a successful deal dynamic as the recovery takes hold in 2010.

/bryan