* Stocks trading at 19 times FALLING earnings...whaa?
* Remembering Rude...with one of the calls of the meltdown,
* What to make of all this effervescent trading action and more...
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Eric Fry, reporting from Laguna Beach, California…
To judge from the stock market's effervescent trading action, all is right with the world. But to judge from the "Business Section" stories of almost any newspaper, there's almost nothing that isn't wrong with the world.
Unemployment is rising; activity at factories is falling; and consumers aren't doing much of anything. All of this adds up to a sluggish economy…much more sluggish than the bulls on Wall Street expect.
If the bullish investors on Wall Street are too optimistic, it would not be the first time. Investors are prone to excess, both on the upside and on the downside. We cannot say that today's upside is excessive, only that it is without any fundamental underpinnings. Stocks are trading at 19 times FALLING earnings, and there's very little indication that earnings will improve – much less, accelerate – any time soon.
To the contrary, Dan Amoss, the insightful mind behind the Strategic Short Report, believes the U.S. economy remains very sickly, mostly because the banking sector remains infected with toxic assets.
"The backlog of [mortgage] foreclosures is building like water behind a dam," Dan observes in a recent missive to his subscribers. "Once the dam gives way, the market may be shocked at how quickly the headline foreclosure numbers accelerate. Are the quant funds currently bidding up the price of financial stocks incorporating this foreclosure backlog into their models? I doubt it.
"The Sept. 23 issue of Amherst Mortgage Insight is the best attempt I've read to quantify the 'shadow inventory' of houses," Dan continues. "It leads with a sober estimate of the residential housing supply situation:
The single largest impediment to a recovery in the housing market is the large number of loans that are either in delinquent status or in foreclosure that are destined to liquidate.. This creates a huge shadow inventory. We estimate this housing overhang at 7 million units, 135% of a full year of existing home sales.
"Amherst Securities has been ahead of the curve," says Dan, "in warning about the deterioration in mortgage securities and this market's impact on the health of the banking system."
Truth be told, Dan has also been ahead of the curve. In the May 21, 2008 edition of the Rude Awakening, Dan observed, ""Billions of dollars of future write-downs and losses are still buried inside Wall Street's balance sheets. Lehman Brothers (LEH) appears to be among the most vulnerable of all the investment banks."
Just a few months later, Lehman was a zero and Dan's subscribers were walking away with gains of 400%, or more, on the Lehman put options he had recommended.
In celebration of Dan's analytical mastery, today's edition of the Rude Awakening will present his dead-on analysis of Lehman Bros. from May 21, 2008 – just four months before Lehman's collapse. The title of that day's issue was, "What If the Worst is Not Over?"
Good call, Dan!
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What if the Worst is Not Over? By Dan Amoss
Since the rescue of Bear Stearns on March 17, the Amex Securities Broker/Dealer Index has rallied 20%. The shares of Lehman Brothers have rocketed more than 30%. These dramatic rallies support the popular thesis that "the worst is over" for the financial sector.
But these dramatic rallies also provide attractive short-selling opportunities for every investor who believes that the "worst is yet to come."
Most of Wall Street's money-making machines have shut down. Mortgage-securitization activity has gone kaput, while IPO and M&A activities are sputtering. Even worse, Billions of dollars of future write-downs and losses are still buried inside Wall Street's balance sheets.
Lehman Brothers (LEH) appears to be among the most vulnerable of all the investment banks. The stock has rallied hard since the Bear Stearns rescue. Because its business model closely resembles that of Bear Stearns, Wall Street thought Lehman was next. And it might have been, if not for the Fed.
The Fed instituted a lending facility allowing the investment banks to temporarily swap the ugliest "alphabet soup" assets for Treasuries. These alphabet soup assets – mortgage-backed securities (MBS), asset-backed securities (ABS), collateralized loan obligations (CLO), and others – had been smothering the brokers to the point that Bear Stearns was hours from declaring bankruptcy.
In the hopeful words of Lehman Brothers CEO, Dick Fuld, the Federal Reserve's lending facility "takes the liquidity issue for the entire industry off the table." Sure, the Fed's actions may have forestalled a modern-day "bank run" on Wall Street. But the Fed has not solved the bigger, longer-term crisis.
The Fed's new facility allows Lehman to temporarily swap its garbage assets for Treasuries. What it doesn't do is protect Lehman shareholders from losses on these securities. Lehman shareholders will be the first to absorb these losses. Shareholders are in the most junior position in every company's capital structure. So the more leverage – or debt – a company employs, the quicker shareholders get wiped out when assets sour.
As the chart below shows, Lehman's equity (in red) supports just a tiny sliver of Lehman's towering liabilities. Lehman's gross leverage ratio amounts to about 32 times equity. This means Lehman's assets can fall only about 3% in value before equity is wiped out.
Lehman is scrambling to reduce leverage and raise capital by selling illiquid assets into a weak secondary market. Unfortunately, illiquid mortgage-backed securities aren't a particularly hot item these days. There are few buyers for such assets – even at steep discounts.
According to Bernstein Research, Lehman's "troubled" residential and commercial mortgage assets amount to nearly three times its tangible equity. That's danger level for Lehman shareholders. And the danger is growing…
Last year, the investment banks, including Lehman, adopted a new Financial Accounting Standards Board rule called "FAS 157." This new accounting rule segregates balance sheet assets according to their liquidity and marketability.. "Level I Assets" have readily available market prices. "Level II Assets" can be valued by comparing them to prices of similar assets. But "Level III Assets" lack any observable market price or price inputs. They are "marked to model" – not "marked to market."
So how many Lehman assets are Level II and III? According to its latest 10-Q, Lehman categorized $60.5 billion and $23.8 billion of its mortgage securities as Level II and III assets, respectively. This adds up to $84.3 billion – or more than four times tangible equity per share! Therefore, if just 12% of Lehman's $153 per share in Level II and III mortgage assets were written off – a reasonable assumption – such losses would eat through half of Lehman's tangible equity.
The odd thing about Level III assets, also know as "mark-to-model" assets, is that the owner of them gets to decide how much they're worth. I'm not kidding. Lehman management determines for itself the value of the Level III it owns. Therefore, no one can really know what the true value might be. There's no way to know, for example, what models management uses to value its Level III assets. Hopefully, they are not using the same badly flawed models that predicted smooth sailing for subprime mortgage-backed securities.
This lack of pricing transparency (or pricing reality) can be management's strongest ally…for a while. But eventually, the truth will out. Eventually, the Level III assets will make their way from the dark recesses of Lehman's balance sheet into the unforgiving light of real-world pricing. Eventually, living and breathing buyers will determine the value of these assets, not some mainframe computer in the Lehman back office. And as these real-world transactions occur, Lehman might face billions of dollars of additional write-downs and losses.
Lehman management has not been terribly forthcoming about reporting quarterly losses and write-downs. Brad Hintz from Bernstein Research hinted that fuzzy math produced Lehman's "strong" March earnings report: "We believe the quality of these earnings was weak, as the firm benefited from a lower tax rate and enjoyed a $600 million mark-to-market gain on its liabilities." That's a polite understatement.
Believe it or not, accounting rules allow investment banks to book a profit when the value of the bonds they have issued FALL. Follow along with this crazy logic if you can: Because the holders of Lehman's bonds became fearful that Lehman would declare bankruptcy, the bondholders dumped the bonds at very low prices. Therefore, because Lehman's bond prices tumbled, Lehman could, theoretically, buy back the bonds at prices much lower than the stated value of those bonds on Lehman's balance sheet. As a result, this bizarre accounting rule concludes, Lehman can book a "profit" on the difference between the issue price of its bonds and the depressed market prices. Taken to an extreme, Lehman could probably post one if its most profitable quarters ever, just by declaring bankruptcy!
Obviously, falling bond prices indicate financial stress, and certainly do not produce sustainable, high-quality earnings. Such "earnings" do not generate cash or create any value of shareholders whatsoever.
Net-net, Lehman is still facing the likelihood of losing tens of billions of dollars over the course of the next few years. As losses pile up, Lehman will have to raise capital. That means flooding the market with LEH shares. Lehman may have to issue hundreds of millions of new shares at a discount to rebuild its capital shortfall, severely diluting the existing shareholders.
David Einhorn, an accomplished hedge fund manager, recently explained why he's still selling short Lehman shares. In a speech at the April 8 Grant's conference, he said that Lehman may have to boost its capital by as much as $30 to $70 billion. If Einhorn's guesstimate is anywhere close to the mark, Lehman's shareholders are in for a very rough ride.
The worst might be over for the financial sector, just like so many investors seem to believe. But a lot of bad stuff is still rolling our way. For the rest of 2008, therefore, investors might want to take their cue from Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan when he said, "The number of times people have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, it turned out to be a train coming down the tracks."
Joel's Note: Dan's Strategic Short Report offers one of the best bear market strategies we know of. Simply put, his track record speaks for itself. If you are interested in learning more about his Ultimate Bear Market Strategy Report, please read on Right Here.