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Week 30: Cognitive Dissonance, Canaco updates, Canadian house prices and the story of Community Bankers Trust

Portfolio Performance

Portfolio Composition

Trying to not be dogmatic

A few years ago I read a book called Mistakes were Made.  The book described our ability as human beings to remain convinced that we are right to the point where we ignore all evidence to the contrary.

Our predisposition to fabricate reasons why we are right and ignore reasons why we are wrong is based on a concept called cognitive dissonance.  As the book defines it:

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent… Dissonance produces mental discomfort ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find ways to reduce it.

All symptoms I am all too well acquainted with.

Along the same lines, I came across an interesting piece on FT this week.  The following quote can be attributed to SocGen’s Dylan Grice:

But all is not lost. The bias towards thinking we’re more correct than we are isn’t driven by an inability to fully assimilate undesirable information but an unwillingness to do so. Therefore, the first step in removing the bias is to adopt procedures that foster a more honest acceptance of logical conclusions. Logic has no emotional content per se. There is no such thing as good or bad information; information is only true or false.

But because of our hardwiring, we only want certain information to be true. In particular, we want the information that confirms our prior beliefs and validates our belief systems to be true — about ourselves, about others, about the world. Thus, debiasing ourselves must involve an honest assessment of what we want: do we want to be right about everything, or do we want to know what’s true?

Let’s bring this back to what this blog is about: investing.  In my piece last week I stepped through the basic premises on which I am currently invested.  The tenants I stated were the conclusion of a somewhat anguished and certainly restless mental reevaluation that I had been running through over the prior few weeks.

As the market moved against me I  started to look at why I might be wrong.  In my spare time I tried to “assimilate the undesirable information” and paint the most contrary picture I could.

I especially went through the exercise with gold and with my rather significant precious metal stock positions (Aurizon Mines, Atna Resources, OceanaGold, Canaco Resources, Geologix, Esperenza Resources, Lydian International and Golden Minerals).  Gold is always easy to question (what does gold really do anyways?).  I attempted to soberly evaluate both the prospects of the metal  and the companys.  I looked for reasons to basically cut them loose.

I hemmed and hawed a lot, and at times began to convince myself that I was indeed wrong.   But in the end I was led back to the basic points of valuation and underlying conditions, which seemed to me to remain firmly in gold’s favor.

This is how I make decisions.  At times it undoubtably appears that I am flip-flopping.  I am sure that my weekly writings must have an aire of contradiction when read one after another.  A reader might wonder how it is that my point of view can go from one extreme to another in the matter of weeks (see Argonaut Gold).  Or at times even flip 180 degrees only to flip back a few weeks later (see Argonaut Gold).

In truth, this is the only process I know of that allows me to really question whether I am right.  If I can push myself to the edge, almost convince myself of the diametrically opposed point of view, and still in the end come back to my original conclusions, then well, that’s really getting somewhere.   At times I push myself so far that I actually begin to believe it myself (ah yes, see Argonaut Gold), but that is just a occasionally necessary casualty.  Far more often I leave the exercise with more clarity, and with that clarity comes the likelihood that I will act properly when the situation arises.

In the end I came away from my “anguished” analysis of gold more confident in my positions than I was when I started.  And this week, on Wednesday, when the Fed news hit the wire that interest rates would be low for time eternity, that gave me the clarity to act.

The moment I read the news I bought a position in Barrick Gold, and I added to my positions in Esperanza Resources and Golden Minerals (though I neglected to make the AUM trade in my practice account).  The next day I added to OceanaGold, and thta was followed by additions to Atna and Canaco the day after that.

In my practice account:

And in my actual account:

You do the work so that you have the confidence to act.  You put in the time learning and working through why so that when an opportunity makes its brief appearance, when Bernanke comes out and says “yeah we aren’t going to raise rates for a long time” you can recognize it for what it is and say “all right, I’m in” and you know what you have to do.

Had I not been stepping through the thesis of why gold and gold stocks remain a solid investment, I likely would not have had the conviction to buy into the rally.  At worst, I would have sold into the rally, because if you really don’t know why you are investing in something you tend to take the first blip after a long period of blah as a “finally I can get out” moment.  As it is, with the Fed putting interest rates on hold for another couple years, and with their actions maybe even foreshadowing a true QE event in Europe, I feel quite confident that I am positioned well for that fall out.

Speaking of Canaco Resources…

I bought Canaco Resources at the end of the year at about $1.10 as part of my “tax loss buying binge”.  A couple of things happened with Canaco this week.

First, the stock went up.

Second, the company updated us on its activities in Tanzania:

  • Expect a resource estimate by the end of March
  • Expect a preliminary economic assessment by the end of the third quarter
  • Expect further metallurgical testing results at some point

Third, Canaccord Capital came up with an updated price target, and more importantly helped give us a glimpse at what to expect from the upcoming resource estimate (hat tip to howestreetbull who posted this on Investors Hub).

  • Canaco has approved a US$35-40 million 2012 exploration budget, and is currently drilling 10,000 metres per month at Handeni with nine diamond drill rigs and one RC rig.
  •  Six of the drill rigs are focused on delineating the Magambazi resource in preparation for the initial resources estimate. Two diamond drill rigs are focused on the Kuta and the Magambazi North Extension targets. The remaining diamond drill rig is operating on the Majiri target, where previous surface sampling and RC drilling indicate a gold anomaly. The RC drill rig iscurrently operating on the Bahati target to test preliminary regional targets.
  • We are expecting an initial resource and metallurgical test results in Q1/12, and a PEA in Q3/12. We are expecting an initial resource of 2.3 million ounces of gold at a grade of 3+ g/t gold. Previous metallurgical testing indicates recoveries of 90+% using a conventional CIL process.

Valuation: with US$110 million in cash, we believe the company is in a strong position to continue to derisk and advance the Handeni project. Our peak gold price estimate of NAVPS (10%, US$1,750/oz) remains unchanged at $7.50. We continue to value Canaco based on a 0.65x multiple to our peakgold price estimate of NAVPS.

At the current price of $1.50 Canaco trades at a market capitalization of $300M.  Subtracting the current cash balance of $115M, the enterprise value of the company is a little less than $200M.  If the deposit does indeed contain 2.3M oz of gold, the valuation being given for those ounces is about $80 per.

This is a 3 g/t open pittable deposit that looks to be 90% recoverable with a straightforward metallurgical process sheet.  In my opinion (and apparently Canaccord’s as well) those ounces should be worth more than $60/oz.

To throw out a comparison point from a recent PEA, Prodigy Gold had a PEA done for its Magino gold property last March.  The PEA assumed a CIL recovery process, a 9 year mine life, producing gold from an open pit at a grade of 1.2g/t for 9 years to give a total mine of life production of 1,585,000 oz of gold.  The after tax NPV5 of the project was estimated at $259M at $1000/oz gold.   That works out to a value of $160/oz.

Albeit there may be better comparisons out there, but this one surely suggests that Canaco is undervalued.  Canaco’s Magambazi project is much higher grade than Prodigy’s (3g/t versus 1g/t).  The location is Africa, versus Canada for Prodigy, which probably suggests a bit of a discount against Canaco but not enough to make me change my opinion.  And while the Magambazi strip is as yest unknown,  the Magambazi deposit appears to be around a hill top, which should lead to a reasonable number (the strip for Prodigy’s Magino is 3.3).

Finally, the last bit of news was that Brent Cook came out with the following plug about Canaco:

“The funds were just jumping in on this thing – and they all bailed out as well – the stock got down to $1.20. During this time period they’ve been drilling and drilling and drilling, and the results continue to show me that they’ve got what I think is going to be a legitimate, decent size, decent grade, open-pittable deposit in Tanzania,” Cook says. “So we’re buying this stock at $1.30 with $115 million in the bank, and a $41-million exploration program. That, to me, seems like a good buy.”

Yup.

When the gold price broke out on Wednesday, Canaco was the first stock I added to.

and speaking of gold…

I came across this interesting piece of information regarding the appetite of the Chinese for gold.   This may be old news to some but I think it is still worth reporting.

The People’s Bank of China  research director Zhang Jianhua was cited as saying Monday in the central bank publication Financial News that gold purchases should be ramped up when prices drop, although he gave no indication of what proportion of the nation’s $3.2 trillion forex reserve should be allocated to investments in gold.

Apparently, Jianhua called gold the only safe haven left and said that:

“the Chinese government needs to further optimize China’s foreign exchange asset portfolio and seek relatively low entry points to buy gold assets…no asset is safe now.  The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency – gold”.

High House Prices

I’ve been doing some research on house prices in Canada and in particular in my city, Calgary.  I plan to do a separate post on my findings shortly, but for the moment I just want to throw up a couple teaser graphs that gave me pause for thought.

The chart is taken from a speech given by Mark Carney to a Vancouver audience last June.  The methodology used is the ratio of the nationwide median home price to the median household disposable income. A ratio of greater than 3 has traditionally been seen as unaffordable.

It makes you think.

One other chart from the same report.  Below is the average house price in Vancouver:

Its either a heck of a bull market or a bubble.  To say it another way, I don’t know about house prices, but when a stock goes parabolic you typically know how it is going to end.

Anyways, more on this later.

Community Bankers Trust

It was a good week for Community Bankers Trust (BTC).

Earnings will come out for the company on Tuesday.  Hopefully the company will put together another profitable quarter.

The BTC story

I bought BTC as a turnaround story.  Community Bankers Trust is a bank that has been trying to reincarnate itself after the first incarnation came close to an early death. My observation is that they have been successfully navigating this resurrection, and with the recent turn in profitability (and a helpful turn in the economy) the bank is on its way to realizing its earnings potential.

The bank was hit hard by the recession in 2009.  The company saw nonperforming loans skyrocket from 2% of total loans in the first quarter of 2009 to 10% of total loans in the second quarter of 2011.  Yet there have been signs that the efforts the company has been making to turn itself around are working, culminating with a profitable quarter in Q3.

Let’s hope they can keep that momentum.

How did they get to here?

The original strategy of the bank was, as far as I can tell at least, to simply buy other banks and get bigger.  Witness, the name of the original company was called Community Bankers Acquisition Corporation  (CBAC), so they weren’t exactly being subtle.  Along with the acquisition strategy, the bank seemed to have a “worry about the profitability later” strategy, which may have worked ok when the economy was growing but that fell flat when the economy didn’t in 2008.

As best as I can discern the acquisition effort was spearheaded by Gary Simanson. He headed up the original company CBAC, and then moved into a position of Strategic Vice President, a position I don’t think I’ve ever heard of with any other company. According to this article, Simanson was responsible for subsequent acquisitions.

In truth, the timing was what killed the acquisition strategy.  To quickly step through the timeline, in May 2008 the company began its journey by acquiring two local Virginia banks, TransCommunity Financial Corporation, , and BOE Financial Services of Virginia, Inc.  In November the bank moved ahead and acquired The Community Bank, which was a little bank in Georgia.  Finally in January 2009 they acquired Suburban Federal Savings Bank, Crofton, Maryland.

So you had 4 bank acquisitions in less than a year happening at the time of a 100 year financial tsunami.  How do you think things turned out?

Change in Direction

By 2010 Simanson had left the company and the direction of the company was changed to the more pragmatic “we need to get profitable before we go belly up” strategy.

This was described pretty bluntly in the 2010 second quarter report. CEO Gary Longest said at the time:

Our strategy has shifted from that of an aggressive acquisition platform, to one that meets the banking needs of the communities we serve, while providing sustainable returns to our stockholders. To this end, we are taking the necessary steps to return immediately to profitability. We are actively analyzing our market base to assess the contributions of all branches to our franchise value and will take the appropriate actions in the third quarter of this year. Additionally, we will make aggressive expense reductions, and will look to restructure and strengthen the balance sheet. We are confident that the analysis of these potential critical paths and the resulting execution of these initiatives will lead us back to profitability quickly.” “Our goal is an immediate return to consistent quarterly profits. To accomplish this, we have no alternative as a Company but to make clear and intelligent decisions in the next 60 days, no matter how difficult, to accomplish that goal as soon as possible. That is our full focus.”

 In a somewhat odd twist to which I’m sure there is a good story, Longest himself was gone only a couple months later. Nevertheless the interim CEO and soon to be permanent CEO Rex L. Smith took up the reins and has carried out the strategy quite well given the circumstances.

 Where are they now?

I already mentioned that the company had its first profitable quarter in a long time last quarter.  I don’t believe this was a one time fluke.  It looks to me like its the culmination of a number of initiatives put forward by the bank that have been geared towards making the bank more profitable.

The company has made an effort to lower the cost of its deposit base.  Time deposits, which are expensive high interest bearing deposits, have decreased from 73% to 67% of total deposits since the end of 2009.  As well, the cost of the time deposits has come down from 2.9% in 2009 to 1.6% in the third quarter.

The effect has been a steadily rising net interest margin (NIM) since the strategic direction change in 2010.

(note that this graph is a simplified version of NIM calculated as a percentage of all assets rather than the more common formulation of interest bearing assets)

The company also undertook efforts to reduce expenses.  The most common way of illustrating the day to day expenses of a bank is through something called the Efficiency ratio.  The Efficiency ratio is simply the ratio of the total non-interest expenses at the bank (so the salaries, building costs, lawyer fees, pretty much everything except the actual cost of borrowing money) to the  net interest margin (so the amount of interest made minus the amount of interest paid).  The reason that you look at the Efficiency ratio is because it ex’s out growth, since growth should occur for both NIM and expenses in concert with one another.

The Effiency ratio of BTC has been falling consistently.

What’s it worth?

To get an idea of what the bank might be worth if it continues to pull itself together, I put together a proforma earnings estimate.  I stripped out all the provision for loan losses, the FDIC intangibles (from their earlier acquisitions) that the bank is required to amortize, as well as losses on real estate and gains of the sale of securities.  So basically I looked at the banking skeleton that is BTC.  Here is what I found:

What this clearly demonstrates is that if get rid of all the scabs, there is quite a profitable little enterprise here.

Meanwhile, the bank sports a tangible book value that is much greater than the current share price ($1.40 after last weeks run up):

What is left to be done?

The story that still needs to play itself out is the healing process.  The really big negative for the bank is that it still has an extremely elevated portfolio of non-performing loans.  There are signs that this is abating, and in truth part of the bet here is the same one that you make on any regional bank: the US economy is turning the corner, the Fed is not going to allow it to fall into another recession, and so the worst of the loan defaults are behind us.

But just to get an idea of the risk here, typically you wouldn’t want a bank to have non-performing loans in excess of a couple of percent.  Many of the best banks I’ve looked at have nonperforming loans of well less than 1%.  BTC, onthe other hand…

There are tentative signs that the peak has passed, but it will take a few quarters before we know for sure that further write-downs are not coming.

Earnings on Tuesday will give us a lot of insight into the direction of the trends.  I’ll be looking closely at nonperforming assets and the 30-89 day deliquents (which are an early warning of the soon-to-be not performing.  I also will be hoping to see some decent earnings.

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What is the LTRO going to do for Europe? And how does it affect my stocks?

I think that the essence of this bullish rally can be summarized by this one chart

Investors have taken to the opinion that the long term financing operations (LTRO) provided by the ECB back in December has removed the risk of collapse in Europe from the table, maybe even for a couple years. It’s all clear to buy stocks.

Investors are of the mind that the LTRO has removed the risk of collapse in Europe from the table, maybe even for a couple years.

As described by Citigroup:

The ECB’s LTROs have succeeded in breaking the negative spiral of rising risk aversion, poor asset performance and forced selling. Money is cheap, and every day, confidence is building little by little, prompting buying. The resulting asset performance in turn raises confidence further. The lack of street inventory implies small shifts in demand have a much bigger impact on spreads than in the past.

I underestimated the effect of the LTRO. I might have recognized that having a liquidity backstop for the banks would be a big confidence builder for the market.  Unfortunately I didn’t.  Whether this confidence can be sustained, well that is a question I hope to look at here.

Things came very close to going sideways

We were on the edge of the cliff at the end of November and early December. No where can these be seen more clearly then by the yields of short term bills of the periphery. While I have put up the chart for the 10 year Italian bond a number of times, I have not focused on the short term bills.  Below is the rather shocking collapse and then restabilization of the 6 month bill in Italy.

The LTRO coincided with a tremendous drop in short term yields.  A lessor, but still significant, drop came in longer term yields.  Equities rose as yields fell and the crisis abated.

Is it sustainable?

Citi doesn’t think so.  In the same note Citi says that the rally is likely mostly based on fumes. The reason?  While QE1 and QE2 stimulated lending (and speculation), the LTRO is not expected to stimulate anything other than bank liquidity.

To put it simply, almost all the big banks in Europe are going through a process of deleveraging.  The LTRO simply helps them through this process without putting undue stress on one another, like the stress at the end of November last year.

FT had a good piece on just what the ECB’s intent is for the LTRO. In it they argue that the ECB did not create the LTRO funding to flood the EU with Euros or to stimulate government debt buying by banks. They did it to “stop a heart attack of bank deleveraging in the eurozone.”  When the LTRO is understood this way, it can be seen that it is more akin to the Fed’s response to the commercial paper crisis in 2008 than it is any QE.

This is an important point.

Providing liquidity directly to banks for operational use, as the Fed did in 2008, has historically not been much of a prop to equity markets beyond an initial, confidence induced, blip. The Fed did all sorts of operations in the fourth quarter of 2008. It wasn’t until it embarked on a true QE in 2009 that the market actually responded favourably for an extended period.

It makes you wonder what the half life is of the LTRO effect.

What are the mechanisms of transmission?

The problem is that the LTRO is a liquidity mechanism and the problem in Europe is not a liquidity problem. As Mauldin pointed out in that piece I referenced last week, europe has a solvency problem brought on by countries that simply aren’t competitive and banks and sovereigns that are overleveraged. QE begins to solve the solvency problem because newly printed money pays off old, otherwise unpayable debt.  But is the LTRO intended, or should it be expected, to do that?   I don’t think so.  Its just a long term repo, or in other words, long term borrowing for the banks with very little restrictions on the collateral they have to put up in order to get the money.

I think that to speculate on the real effect of the LTRO on equities over the medium run, you have to think about the mechanism by which QE causes the market to rise.

So certainly there is a change in market psyche.  QE lifts the spirits of the market.  The LTRO did that too.  I would attribute the rise in stocks over the last few weeks mostly to this effect.

In our current case, there is probably also an element of pessimism that was no longer warranted.  The bank stock in Europe, in particular, had been priced to fail.  Failure was no longer imminent, so a rally had to be expected to reprice a degree of solvency back into the stock prices.

Those two elements are probably the biggest effects in the short term.  At some point though, they are going to wear off, and the market is going to start asking, so what is this LTRO actually doing?   Its this longer term impact where the picture gets fuzzy because I don’t think the LTRO has the same long term effect as QE.

The two main long term (with long term meaning months) effects of a QE program is  that the excess money sloshing around from the QE lowers the cost of funding, entice businesses and consumers to borrow, and it provides banks with the liquidity and capital to make more loans.

The problem is, I don’t see that happening here.  Banks in Europe are in deleveraging land.  Just as would be expected, the evidence is that the banks are taking the money and turning right around to inject it back into short term bills (see that chart of Italian bill rates above).  They want liquidity that can be easily accessed in case their wholesale funding dries up.  They don’t want to make a 3 year loan to Acme Manufacturers, taking on the associated risk.  They already have too much risk on their balance sheet.

This is great for the bill market; rates fall, and it certainly removes the most stressed condition from Q4, but if the money not finding its way into the economy, what good is it going to be for growth?

The Eurozone still isn’t growing much

Back to the Citi note one last time:

Despite a mild winter the European economic data isn’t really improving. Our economists have just lowered their Euro zone growth forecast for 2012 from -1.2% to -1.5%. Spain’s Budget Minister Montoro has just warned the country may miss its 4.4% budget deficit target for 2012. The earnings season has been decidedly mixed, with about 60% of US S&P 500 companies beating to date – much lower than in past quarters.

Access to liquidity just lets banks keep on keeping on for a few more months. Like the Fed operations in 2008, the liquidity injections led to short term spikes but no lasting impact on the market. I am willing to speculate that the LTRO response with follow suit.

Capital Ratios an other impediments

Another FT article, this time referring to Richard Koo of Nomura, speculated similarly.  Koo is talking specifically about the impact of the 9% capital ratio, but as he alludes to, there are a number of factors producing the same basic effect on banks: new capital is used to assist in de-leveraging, not growing:

What is preventing the funds supplied by the ECB from flowing into the real economy and improving economic conditions? Although there are a number of answers, the biggest obstacle from a policy perspective is the European Banking Authority’s tough new capital rules.

The EBA has demanded that European banks raise core Tier 1 capital to 9% of risk-weighted assets by June 2012. None of the policies unveiled in response to the crisis has been so counterproductive…This 9% rule effectively prescribes the size of European banks’ balance sheets. This means banks will not be able to increase lending no matter how much liquidity the ECB supplies, effectively rendering any monetary accommodation by the ECB powerless to stimulate the economy. The EBA’s 9% rule may help in preventing the next crisis, but it will do nothing to resolve the current one—in fact, it will make it much worse.

Yields in Portugal aren’t falling

On a related note, one of the most interesting developments over the past month is that the Portugese 10 year yield has NOT fallen.

Investors aren’t being totally fooled by the LTRO.

In the next few months we should start to get a better picture about the impact of the austerity measures on the economies of Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain.  I would speculate the numbers will be grim, and a lot of the wind provided by the LTRO will be knocked from the sails.

Bringing it all back home (to the portfolio moves)

As you know, I continue to hold a couple shorts of European banks.    I also added more gold stocks yesterday (specifically ABX and more OGC)  after the Fed news so these banks shorts could be seen as a bit of a hedge on my rather large gold stock position.

The other day I was contemplating some of my positions which had begun to move against me.  A lot of that has cleared in my head over the last few days.  The Fed announcement brought back my conviction in gold stocks.  And after taking a long and hard look at Europe, I have decided that I am likely on the right side of this bet, and while I would be wary of adding too much to that bet as the market moves against me, its not time to cut it just because of a few tough weeks.

The biggest thing that I think I have to remain wary of is that the ECB holds the trump card here.  A true QE style of bailout in the neighbourhood of E2B to E5B would truly push the problem so far out that it would be someone else’s worry.   Today’s announcement by the Fed to keep rates low for much longer than most anticipated could be seen as a step towards that.  At the end of the day, realizing that the LTRO is not the QE that everyone seems to be interpreting it as leaves an open question: is the QE still to come?

Week 29: Conviction and Humility, Investigating PHH, Don’t forget about Atna, Buying Midway

Portfolio Performance

Portfolio Composition:

On Conviction and Humility

I find that investing in stocks is a constant antithesis/synthesis (to use a couple of terms from philosphy) between conviction and humility.  Never is this more evident than when things aren’t going your way.

While the market has been up the last couple of weeks, and my portfolio has been up somewhat as well, it is not doing as well as I would like, not as good as the market even, and that makes me want to reevaluate.

Part of me wants to just get out and start all over again.  Right now there are things of  which I am wrong.   Wrong about some of the gold stocks I own (while Atna continues to do well, Aurizon is not doing well, Lydian is not doing well, and a couple of my more recent purchases, Esperenza and Canaco, have stalled out).  Wrong about some of the oils I own (I probably should have sold out of Reliable Energy at 30 cents)  that aren’t doing much of anything.  Certainly wrong about my big bad bailout bank short bet, which went quite far south last week.

The other part of me, pushing just as strongly, wants to stay the course and, more exactly, to ignore what the market might be telling me because the market is wrong and I am right and in time I will be vindicated.

It goes without saying that this last attraction is a dangerous one.  Surely we all have listened to the expert that held his conviction against all evidence to the point where his credibility was lost forever.

The truth between these two extremes lies, of course, somewhere in the middle.  The difficulty is figuring out exactly where that is.

The basic long term investment theses on which I am currently holding stocks (and shorts) are as follows:

  1. Europe is on an inevitable course to dissolution, with a collapse in Japan not far behind
  2. Gold is the only asset that is no one’s liability and it will gain respect as a store of value as these events unfold
  3. The US, while troubled, is muddling through, and the US housing market has likely had, as Kyle Bass has put it, the pig go through the python
  4. Oil is harder to find and harder to get out of the ground then most people appreciate, and its price will prove sticky to the upside
  5. The hz-multifrac is a revolutionary technology and so you want to own oil companies that can take advantage of that technology

I think its helpful to review these basic points on occasion, particularly when things are not going my way.  If I can still stand by these tenants then the rest is just a matter of evaluating if the individual stocks themselves are decent businesses (or perhaps more importantly good stories) in their own right.

And, having thought about it over the weeked, I wouldn’t stand away from any of the above.

Two weeks of a market moving up with many of my stocks doing nothing can seem like an eternity.  Sitting with as much cash as I currently have (though I have reduced that cash level somewhat, mostly in response to specific opportunities and a recogntion that the deterioration of Europe no longer seems imminent) while the market rises, can be tough to bare.  But I can’t just abandon what makes sense because of a few tough weeks.  If the facts change, certainly I have to change with them.  No doubt about that.  But when the main fact that has changed is that the market is not going down any more, I think it is wise to respect that fact (no sense doubling down and some sense in lightening up with what doesn’t work) but not so wise to change course entirely.  Better to move as a big ship might, slowly inching it way towards a new course, ever on the lookout for signs on the horizon that might make the destination more clear.

Wading into the Mortgage Market

On Tuesday this week a 13-G was issued that Hayman Investments (the hedge fund run by Kyle Bass) had purchased over 7% (4,448,751 shares) of PHH Corp.  I got a google alert  on the news almost immediately.  It still wasn’t soon enough.  The stock was up 10% within minutes and closed up 12% on the day.

I sat down on Tuesday night with the intent of understanding what Bass what was up to.

I don’t think this is just Bass buying a cheap company (which they are) and hoping for the best.  I think there is more to this story, as I will explain below.  But first, lets talk a bit about where I think we are in the housing cycle.

First of all, I am no blind optimist here.  I don’t think for a second that housing is about to make a robust 180 with rising prices and robust new builds.  That’s not happening for a long time yet.

But that does not mean that all housing company’s should be left in the trash bin.  No I think that those that rely more on volume then price may find themselves doing better this year, and may be ripe for a move.

Why?  Because I think prices have fallen enough in many markets.   Most of the damage in terms of declines appears to have been done.  There was a great graph provided by Core Logic a couple weeks ago that showed prices both including and excluding foreclosures.

Illuminating!  If you ignore foreclosures, prices nationwide are on the verge of going positive.  If you look at the regional data, prices are actually up in many locales.  And while some areas are still bogged down in foreclosures, many have worked through the worst of it.  Those are going to be the areas where we start to see a turn.

So it makes sense to look for companies that stand to gain from these first signs of stabilization.

And with that, onto PHH…

PHH is in the business of mortgage origination. They are in the business of mortgage servicing rights.  Tthey are also in the business of commercial vehicle fleet management but I don’t think that’s the story here so I’m not going to dwell on that.  Lets talk for a minute about the two former businesses.

Mortgage Origination

Mortgage origination basically consists of finding a person that needs a loan to buy a home, showing that person a list of mortgage options of how they could finance that loan, qualifying the borrower for loan guarantees such as those from the GSE’s, and then processing the loan through (doing all the paperwork) and passing it through to the eventual lender institution (usually to Fannie, Freddie or a bank that will either keep it on their books or sell it to another investor).  PHH takes a cut in the process, or an origination fee, that is typically between 1/2% and 1%.  In the third quarter the company said that their “pricing margin also expanded by more than 47 basis points as compared to the second quarter.”

Mortgage Servicing

Mortgage servicing happens after the loan is made. The servicer is responsible for calculating how much the borrower owes and collecting that amount.  If a loan is not being paid then the servicer takes on additional responsibilities such negotiating a workout upon default, looking after the foreclosed property and such.

PHH refers to these businesses as a natural hedge of each other.  Why?  Because they are inversely correlated with respect to interest rates.

Let’s say interest rates fall.  What happens?  People with mortgages at higher rates refinance those mortgages.  That’s great for the origination business.  They are writing up refi’s and taking in the fees.

Not so great for the servicing business. Those refi’s mean that the mortgages that PHH has the rights to service no longer exist.  Now ideally PHH originates the refi and thus takes on the servicing rights for that refi so the old mortgage servicing right (MSR) is replaced with a new one.  But there’s no guarantee of that.

Rates go up and the opposite situation occurs.  Origination suffers, no one is refinancing at the higher rates, but that also means the MSR’s are not being lost either.

As it is, PHH has proven to be pretty good at holding on to more MSR’s then it loses.  Forthe 9 months ending in the 3rd quarter the company had a replenishment rate on MSR’s of 167%.

Ok, back to Bass.  There are a number of things happening in the mortgage business right now from which PHH stands to benefit.  Let’s go through them one by one starting with Harp II.

HARP II

Harp stands for the Home Affordability Refinance Program.  Harp II is the name that has been coined for the new version of HARP.  It supersedes the original Harp.  Harp I was a total failure.

The HARP program has helped far fewer borrowers than its proponents estimated — roughly 894,000 borrowers since Aug. 31, 2011. — and many less than the estimated 11 million U.S. homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth.

Why was it a total failure?  A few reasons:

1. Put back risk: Basically when a bank participated in the original program they were worried that they would get stuck with the original mortgage.  I think what happens here is that to rewrite the original loan to new terms, the loan is going to be scrutinized.  The banks and other underwriters know that the quality of many of those original documents are sketchy at best and they would rather not have to pull out the skeletons.

2. LTV Limits: This is probablythe biggest problem.  The original HARP program dealt with current loans with LTV’s of 80-105.  That was expanded to 125 in 2009, but that still wasn’t enough.  I was surprised by that until I read this:

This should have a big impact in certain parts of Nevada, Arizona, and Florida where many borrowers owe more than 125% of the value of their homes. In Nevada, for example, two thirds of all loans backed by Fannie Mae are underwater, and half of all loans are above the 125% loan-to-value cut-off.

3. Appraisal costs: the borrower had to have an appraisal done to qualify for the original program.  That appraisal could cost $400.  Borrowers were reluctant to take this cost on when there was no guarantee they would be accepted by the program

HARP II aims to correct these mistakes.  The LTV limit is gone.  Appraisals are no longer required.  And banks are protected against the put backs.Says Brian Ye, analyst at J.P Morgan Chase & Co:

“We are of the opinion that there are enough changes to the program that bank servicers could really change their behavior, and this could be one of the first times that the administration has under-promised and over-delivered,”

The two tiers of HARP II

There is one particular element of the new program that helps out PHH is that servicers get a head start over third party originators.   I confess I don’t know just what of impact this is going to have, but it is interesting and potentially significant, so I think its worth mentioning.  Servicers like PHH have been writing borrowers up for the program since the beginning of the year.   A third party originator cannot submit any documents to Fannie or Freddie until March.   This was done to entice the banks into the program, but the corrollary is that a company like PHH can capture business up front without the competition.

There is more interesting information on the new HARP program here.

What’s it going to mean?

This is, of course, the big question. The program is aimed to attract two million borrowers by the end of 2013.  This would be a little more than twice what the original program attracted.

However if the program works, and if JP Morgan turns out to be right and the administration “under-promised”, there is certainly a lot of room for upside.  According to CoreLogic:

10.9 million, or 22.5 percent, of all residential properties with a mortgage were in negative equity at the end of the second quarter of 2011.  Eight million borrowers with negative equity, or nearly 75 percent of all underwater borrowers, have above market rates. The disparity is even greater for those with severe negative equity. More than 40 percent of borrowers with 125 percent or higher loan-to-value (LTV) ratios have mortgages with rates at 6 percent or above, compared to only 17 percent for borrowers with positive equity.

Apart from the obvious fact that these numbers show just how staggeringly bad housing has become, if you prefer to see the glass half full those numbers also suggest that there are a lot of borrowers out that could benefit from a program like this.

I was listening to this week’s Lykken on Lending and they were talking about Harp II.  Lykken said that listeners (brokers and third party originators) needed to gear up for the “mother of all refinancing booms”.  In another segment a couple of weeks earlier Lykken and his guests spoke quite excitedly about the impact of no LTV limits. The one guest talked about how common it is to have to turn away borrowers because they are too far under on their home.  HARP II should help with that.

BOA and correspondent lending – another tailwind

So first of all, what is a correspondent lender?

Consider a broker who develops significant business volume, has earned the confidence of wholesale lenders who will authorize him to approve their loans, and has accumulated some capital. He can now obtain a credit line from a bank that can be drawn against to fund loans, repaying the loans when they are sold to wholesale lenders. Under the law, the broker has morphed into a “lender” – the type called a “correspondent lender”.

This has been a business the big banks have taken a large piece of.   Until now.  In August BoA reported that they were exiting correspondent lending.

This isn’t small potatoes.  It accounted for”47 percent of Bank of America’s mortgage originations, or $27.4 billion, in the first quarter of 2011, the Wall Street Journal said citing Inside Mortgage Finance.”

There are rumors others are leaving the business.  Its a low margin, highly competitive business but it could become less so with some of the big players moving on.

In comparison, for PHH total mortgage closing volumes for 2011 so far were $36.3 billion of which approximately 70% were retail and 30% were wholesale/correspondent.  Here is what management said on the Q3 conference call:

Yes I’m going let – yes the answer to the question is yes, we think there are better opportunities but once again we’re really pretty opportunistic in that channel. So we pay close attention to margins in that channel. As you know it’s probably the most cost competitive channel, it is the most cost competitive channel that we operate in and we’ve seen some really strange behavior in that market in terms of where margins are being priced. Some of our competitors are in the market, when they are in the market they’re very aggressive in terms of their pricing and then they back off and they’re out of market and that’s why we stay really opportunistic in that market. Luke, do you want to add anything?

The company made a total of $95M off of mortgage production, meaning off of fees for new originations of that $36.3B of loans they processed.  The company doesn’t break down the margins between the retail and the wholesale/correspondent.    Total revenue from the segment was $264M, which suggests that the fees on average are around 0.7% of total loan value.

Tailwind 3: Signing up new partners

The last tailwind for PHH is that they are having success signing up some big partners for their origination business.  From the Q3 CC:

We also made significant progress in growing our nationwide sourcing footprint over the past two quarters signing five new private label accounts. The new relationships include Barclays which we mentioned on last quarter’s call and today we’re pleased to announce that we’ve added Ameriprise and Morgan Stanley Private Bank along with two other financial institutions all as new PLS partners.

They also lost one significant client in Charles Schwab but over all the company expects to gain significant production:

We expect the five new PLS accounts in the aggregate based on their 2011 production and taking into account ramp up time and anticipated launch schedules to produce about 7 billion in closing volume in 2012, about double what we predicted for Schwab.

Twisting in the (tail)Wind

The Donald Coxe conference call this week was very good, and it produced one particularly enlightening graph.

Long term rates, both treasury and mortgage, are at all time lows.  When the Fed embarked on operation twist, it was with the intent of bringing down the long end of the curve, and by doing so, propping up and ideally pushing ahead, the housing market.

I would say this was a success.

When you add to the fact of HARP II that interest rates are at all time lows and really, given the decline in house prices in many markets, are basically creating the conditions where you would be crazy not to buy a house, you just have to think that this is going to help origination activity in 2012.  I think the point that is sometimes forgotten is that the downard spiral of housing is really caused by the foreclosure mess.  Its the lynchpin.  If you could create the conditions to stem that flow, I think the situation would right itself a lot faster than is appreciated.

When core earnings matter

A lot of the time when a company is reporting some sort of non-GAAP earnings, its in order to hide something.  A good example of this is Salesforce.com.  They report non-GAAP earnings that exclude certain costs (particularly stock options) that they would rather ignore.

PHH reports a core earnings number every quarter but for a very good reason.  Core earnings is a far better representation of the company’s profitability than is the GAAP number.

The problem with the GAAP number is that it is obscured by changes in the mark to market value of the MSR portfolio. PHH has to write up and down their mortgage servicing rights with changes in interest rates and to a lessor degree credit quality.  When rates go down they have to write down the value of the rights and when rates go up they have to write up the rights.

The fluctuations on the income statement caused by these mark to market moves are huge.  Up to $400M in some quarters.  If you look at quarterly GAAP earnings over the past couple years they look like a scatter chart.

The reality of the MSR’s is that as long as the company is replenishing the existing pool with more rights from new originations then its losing to payoffs of its existing pool, its all good.  As I already noted, PHH is doing that.

The core earnings number takes out that effect. And if you look at that core earnings number you see a pretty cheap looking company.

All that, and discount to book…

The last point I would like to make about PHH is the discount relative to book value.   You can get the shares at a pretty substantial discount, even after the post-Bass run up:

What’s even more interesting is that this discount exists even after the valuation of the MSR portfolio has been clobbered by falling interest rates.  It is not impossible to imagine a scenario where the MSR’s add book worth $500M plus, or another $10 per share.

So what does Bass see?

To sum it up, with PHH you are getting a cheap company that has earned decent money of late and that should benefit from the tailwinds of HARP II, weary competitors and a rebounding housing market.

The negative with PHH is the debt they have coming due, and whether they will have the cash to pay it off.  That debt is an issue I believe is worthy of a post in itself, and I will try to get around to that next week.

Europe is still a problem

…it just doesn’t seem like it right now.

I have a few other things I was hoping to talk about this week but I’m running out of time and this letter is getting quite long already.  But I do want to talk a bit about some of the reading I have done on Europe the past week.

It seems what with the stock market rising every day that Europe is old news now.  Yet I think that to ignore the risk of Europe right now, to go all in, is still at best a gamble.  It may turn out, you could do it and cash out big in 6 months.  But to say you knew it would turn out that way would be kidding yourself.  We could just as easily wake up tomorrow in crisis mode again as in the happy-happy-risk mode that we’ve been in the last couple weeks.

Europe  hasn’t gone away.

The S&P downgrade of a number of European countries been widely reported already so I’m not going to dwell on it, but I do want to point out that the language used.  In particular:

We also believe that the agreement is predicated on only a partial recognition of the source of the crisis: that the current financial turmoil stems primarily from fiscal profligacy at the periphery of the eurozone. In our view, however, the financial problems facing the eurozone are as much a consequence of rising external imbalances and divergences in competitiveness between the EMU’s core and the so-called “periphery”.

This strikes at the basic point that I have made in past posts.  Austerity measures are not going to fix the problem with Europe because the problem is not a one time spending binge that just has to be paid off.  The problem is much deeper, relates to inherent inequities in the productive abilities of the economies, and is quite possibly not solvable without a break up.

As John Maudlin said in his piece “End of Europe”:

For most of the past two years, European leaders have tried to deal with the problems as though they were short-term liquidity problems: “If we just find the money to buy some more Greek bonds, then Greece can figure out how to solve its problems and then pay us back. Given enough time, the problem can get solved.”

They have now arrived at the understanding that it this not a short-term problem. Rather, it’s a solvency problem of the various governments, which of course creates a solvency problem for their banks. They are now addressing the problem of solvency and providing capital until such time as certain countries can get their budgets under control and the bond market sees fit to provide the capital they need.

But they are completely ignoring the third and largest problem, and that is massive trade imbalances. Germany exports products to the peripheral European countries, which run trade deficits. As I have shown in several letters, a country cannot reduce private-sector leverage, reduce public-sector leverage and deficits (balance its budget), and run a trade deficit all at the same time. That is simple, unavoidable math, based on 400 years of accounting understanding. Ultimately, there must be a trade surplus if leverage and debt are to be reduced.

There is a great model that Maudlin creates in the post that summarizes the situation of Greece, Portugal et al to a tee.  I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety.  One last point from the piece:

Prior to the euro, the imbalances would be handled by currency exchange rates. The value of the drachma would go down relative to the value of the deutschmark. Things would balance over time. Now, all of the eurozone countries are effectively on a gold standard, with the euro standing in for gold this time. Britain, the US, and Japan print their own currencies. Their currencies can rise or fall over long periods of time, based on national accounts and the desires of foreigners to buy goods or invest in their countries.

He is retreading the old Jane Jacobs idea that I brought up a couple weeks ago:

What Europe has embarked on with the Euro is the exact opposite of what is needed.  Currency regimes need to evolve to produce better feedback, not worse.  The Euro currency feedback mechanism is skewed by the strength of the German economy (actually more exactly the economy of its one or two prime export replacing cities, Berlin and Frankfurt).  Peripheral countries like Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal are doomed to receive faulty feedback rather than the natural “export subsidy” that would occur if those countries had (lower value) currencies of their own.

To think that all is well is to mistake the calm eye of the storm for the end of it.

Meanwhile, I’ll end my Europe talk with this: There seems to be a growing recognition that Greece needs to exit the Euro.  The chief executive of Germany’s natural gas firm Linde’s chief executive Wolfgang Reitzle was quoted as saying the following in Reuters:

“In the medium term Greece needs to exit. And the writedowns on Greek debt will not be between 50 to 70 percent, but in the end will be written down by 100 percent,” Reitzle said.

Asking Germans to pay more than 50 percent taxes to help fund other euro zone countries will erode the will of the German electorate to support rescue measures, Reitzle said.

Although this scenario is not desirable, he felt that German industry would survive working in a new currency.

Atna’s jump in reserves (and share price)

I haven’t spent as much time as I should writing about Atna.  I tend to ignore the stocks that I am right about.  This is perhaps not the best way to self-promote, but since I’m not really in that ballgame anyways, who cares.  I learn more from my mistakes.

But don’t take that for disinterest.  I watch Atna like a hawk every day. As I pointed out a month ago, I think that if Pinson works out the stock is worth somewhere between $3 and $6.  I know that there is some skepticism around Pinson, that there may be rock stability issues, but I’m of the mind that the current stock price is more than pricing in that risk.

It feels to me like a stock being accumulated before a break-out.  Perhaps we got a taste of things to come this week when the stock popped over $1 and up to as high as $1.05.

On the news front, Atna released an updated resource at Briggs on Thursday.

There is not too much to get too excited about, though it is nice to see that they managed to move about 50,000oz to measured and indicated, basically replacing production.  Overall they showed a slight increase of about 14,000 oz all in.  At the current production rate (45,000 oz), Briggs is good for another 10 years. That alone is probably good for the current share price.

Buying Midway Energy (Again)

The other move I made this week was to reinitiate a position in Midway Energy.  I decided to pull the trigger here because the other Swan Hill players showed signs of moving up towards the end of the week.

I already own positions in Second Wave and Arcan (though the Second Wave position didn’t get taken in the practice account due to an unfortunate glitch in the order fill).  I did not own Midway and it had not moved higher and it seems a reasonable presumption that it will follow suit eventually.

Week 28: Outperformance of the Regional Banks, Buying Xenith Bankshares, Gramercy CDO-2005 and I admit I was wrong (and originally right) about Argonaut Gold

Portfolio Performance:

Portfolio Composition:

If the regional banks are outperforming…

Donald Coxe had a very good conference call last week.  To be honest, I think his calls have been pretty boring for the last 6 months.  He doesn’t have any better grasp on the Euro-crisis then anyone else, yet the situation in Europe is of such a systemic nature that any insight he provided on anything else, always became prempted with the caveat: Assuming all goes well in Europe.

Well last Friday he broke from this mold and made his first endeavour into the terrain of bullish sentiment in some time.

His reason?

The banks.

The main reason for his bullish outlook is the outperformance of the regional bank index, the KRE. As Coxe said:

When you get 3 months of outperformance while the S&P is itself recovering that is a powerful sign that the market has digested the bad news and that things will get better.

The KRE has indeed been outperforming.

I must admit, I’m tentative to proclaim my outright bullishness just yet.  Tto be fair to Coxe, he qualified his own bullihs stance by pointing out that there was still a lot else that had to go right for the bullish call to play out.

I do admit, however, that the signs are beginning to accumulate.  Jobless claims are trending down, the ISM is looking more stable, news out of China (particularly that inflation has fallen) is starting to sound more positive, and heck, even the Italian and Spanish 10-year yields are trending down at the moment.

So what do you buy if you are bullish?

Well, on the conference call Coxe proclaimed (once again) the supremecy of the commodity stocks.  A bit of a broken record is he, but why stop with what works.  Well I am long oil, long gold, thinking about how I might get long copper or coal (but more on that below).  I have those bases covered.  Perhaps the more specific question you might ask, is what does one buy when the KRE is outperforming?

And the logical answer to that?

…buy the regional banks

I’ve been accumulating the shares of a number of regional banks over the past few months.  What is my thesis?

  • The lows of August felt like a bottom
  • There is volume in some bank stocks that typically have had no volume whatsoever (is somebody starting to care?)
  • The housing market in some regions is bottoming
  • The write-downs at many of these banks has peaked
  • How much further below book value these businesses can go?

I’ve been listening to this mortgage broker and originator podcast called Lykken on Lending on my bike ride into work for the last 3 months.  Its interesting stuff.  The first thing that’s interesting is just how intertwined real estate is with regulation.  They actually have a regular segment on this show that is dedicated to new legislation being considered by congress or the senate. Its crazy!  Second thing that is interesting; there is starting to be some signs of life in the mortgage market.  For the first time we are seeing private lenders getting back into the game.  They had a company on a couple weeks ago that was funded by Lew Raneiri (the godfather of securitization) and that is looking for loans that are just below the level of what passes for the GSE’s.

It’s starting again!

In this short clip below, Jim the Realtor, prominently featured on CalculatedRisk, makes out the bull case for a barn-burner spring.  Says Jim: “I think we get into spring time – if rates are still this low – it’s going to be a real frenzy.”

Kyle Bass and MGIC

Another favorite of mine, Kyle Bass, recently bought a large stake (just under 5%) in MGIC.  I stepped through MGIC over Christmas and will review the work I did another time,  but to make a few brief conclusions I determined the value certainly might be there but I just don’t understand the business (the mortgage insurers are hugely levered companies with massive amounts of housing liabilities against them) well enough to pull the trigger.  Specifically, the solvency of MGIC and the rest of the insurers seems to depend as much on the ability of the insurers to mark their liability per payout (in other words how much they owe for the foreclosure they insured) as anything else, and that appears to be a bit of black magic to me.

Nevertheless, MGIC has moved substantially higher since that time, something that seems unlikely if the housing market were about to (triple?) dip again.  Here is what Bass had to say about MGIC and the housing market a couple of months ago.  From the WSJ:

Mr. Bass said that while the housing market was still around two to three years from firmly “bottoming out,” he said any future price declines would be quite modest. “I don’t anticipate a huge decline,” he said.

I think he’s right.  Residential housing is closer to a bottom then a top.  And its bottomed in some markets.

The Housing Market Turns?

Residential housing is the lifeblood of most regional and community banks.  A turn in those markets could turn the fortunes of these companies.That’s why I’ve picked up shares in the following stocks over the last couple of months:

  • Oneida Financial (ONFC)
  • Bank of Commerce Holdings (BOCH)
  • Atlantic Coast Financial (ACFC)
  • Community Bankers Trust (BTC)

Apart from Oneida, these stocks are not for the faint of heart.  I know there are plenty of well capitalized but fairly valued banks out there that can return you 10-15% per year in all likelihood.  I want a bit more than that though.  So I am willing to step out on the limb a bit further to get it.

Xenith Bankshares and the problem with RBC practice accounts

I’m going to get into Xenith in a second but first let me say something about this RBC practice account.

Great idea.  The idea to be able to put fake money into an account, to have it count commissions and to be able to make buys and sells in real time is super.

The problem lies in the execution.  First there was the problem placing orders.  This started back in September.  I wrote them about it. They said they would fix it.  They wrote:

Here we are in January, I still have to do this clugey workaround where before I can place an order I have to start it through my margin account and then at the last step switch the practice account.

Now, just yesterday, another problem.  Apparently I can’t place an order for select NASDAQ stocks.  In particular those that are NASDAQ:CM (capital markets).  This just started.  I phoned RBC.  Luckily I’m on their gold plus customer plan or whatever its called so I get some service.  They look into it, see what’s wrong, but now they have to send it to their “back office people” to fix it.

We shall see.

Thus it is that while I own XBKS, I do not own XBKS in my practice account.  I don’t know when that will happen.  If any of my readers knows of another better service for tracking a mock portfolio, please email me.

Anyways, that’s the story, onto the stock.

My latest bank pick: Xenith Bankshares

Xenith Bankshares is a community bank centered out of Richmond Virginia.

The bank specalizes in making commercial loans, which make up some 88% of their loan book.

Xenith was involved in two transactions during the summer, buying banks from two other distressed Virginia lenders (Paragon Community Bank and Virginia Business Bank or VBB).  In the case of VBB, the bank was bankrupt and the transaction took place through the FDIC.  In the case of Paragon, Xenith just took over the Richmond based operations of the banks.  In both cases, the company is only responsible for the performing loans on these banks books.

The history of Xenith and these two transactions have already been written up in two excellent posts on a website called Frog’s Kiss, here and here.  I will not dwell on the details of the bank to much further, because all the information is there.

Why Xenith?

Xenith is aggressively growing their loan book in Virginia, both through transactions like the above, and organically through new loans.  They have done a good job of making loans, and so far nonperforming assets are not a significant threat.

And yet you aren’t paying much for this growth.  The company has a tangible book value of a little over $65M, whereas at the current share price of $3.70, the market capitalization is a little under $40M.

Why so cheap?

Well for one, the bank isn’t profitable yet.   Xenith has been losing about $1.5M per quarter all in for the last couple of years.  For two, it is a bank and after all no one wants to own a bank, right?

Of course that might be about to change.

Part of the bet here is that the management at Xenith can integrate these recent transactions and bring their profitability up to the company’s standard.    The company was created originally with a takeover of First Bankshares.  This was a sleepy little commercial lender that had a fairly weak interest margin.  The management at Xenith have been successful in increasing the NIM significantly since that time (see below).  The expectation is that they will do something similar with the newly acquired loan and deposit base.

The second part of the bet is that Xenith has a lot more room to grow.  The company’s tangible equity (as noted above), is about $64M.  Loans and securities and other risk assets are about $360M.  So the company is only employing about 6x leverage.  They should be able to raise this to around 10x over the course of the next year.

If they do, and are successful in their lending endeavors, you might expect the company to deliver a return of somewhere around 1% to 1.5% return on assets.  Taken another way, you might expect the company to deliver somewhere between 8% and 12% return on current equity when its all said and done.  Projecting either of these metrics leads to a fairly cheap earnings multiple (somewhere between 4x and 7.5x earnings depending on their success.   This suggests that as this plays out over the next couple of years, you could expect the stock price to at least double (and optimistically quadruple if the banks become loved again) from current levels as they move ahead.

Gramercy Capital: CDO-2005 passes the over-collateralization test?

With Gramercy, as much sleuthing that I am doing of the company, I feel like I do almost as much sleuthing of other investors.  With Gramercy, one of the best to follow is PlanMaestro.  He posts a blog called Variant Perceptions, also posts on yahoo, investorshub, and corner of berkshire and hathaway.  In this case the relevant piece comes from the latter.  Says Plan:

Jameson Inn was already written off 100% for OC purposes and CDO 2005 passed again its most recent test .

As those of you that read last weeks letter would know, I pointed out that CDO 2005 was unlikely to pass any time soon if it was only curing its undercollateralization with interest payments.  To have passed again, one of two things must have happened.

  1. About $100M of the assets held were paid back, with the proceeds being used to pay out the senior CDO holders
  2. One of the written down loans began to reperform

To discuss the possibility of the latter, there was news this week that the Vegas Hilton, which is in receivership and which has been 60% written down by Gramercy in CDO 2005.  For some time now Goldman Sachs, which holds the mortgage on the LVH along with Gramercy and another party, have been trying to convince the courts to let them run the hotel and gaming operations while it goes through the foreclosure process.  The problem is that the gaming license is owned by the previous owners Colony Resorts.  Colony Resorts had been fighting back saying that if their gaming license was used by the receiver, they could be liable without having any oversight control.

The issue was very recently brought to the court, which ruled that the receiver would only have non-gaming authority.  But then the Nevada Gaming Commission passed its own contrary verdict, allowing for the casino to operate under the existing license.  The matter went back to the courts and just last week news came out that the ruling was in favor of Goldman.

Given the information I have, I can only speculate that this contributed to the change in the collateral test.  The loan sat on the books of CDO 2005 at about $29M as of March.  It was apparently written down 60%, though I have no confirmation of that figure.    CDO 2005 was about $18M short as of last October.  Putting that all together, it seems very unlikely the loan could have had that big of an impact on the collateral test.  Still its an interesting exercise to go through, and a positive development both that the CDO 2005 is now passing, and that the LVH loan is likely accruing some interest again.

Argonaut Gold Pulls together a Strong PEA

This whole short Argonaut Gold trade didn’t exactly work out..  In fact, I don’t know what I was thinking.  I need to start reading my own press clippings.

To recap, two weeks ago I shorted some Argonaut against part of my long of Aurizon Gold. My reasoning was that if gold continued to fall Argonaut, being much more highly valued then Aurizon and at the same time having less cash, would have further to tumble.

I’m a little embarrassed that I made this suggestion. It was only two months ago that I had been arguing that Argonaut was one of the better gold stock investments out there.  I had it right originally. That thesis, which is available here, was that Argonaut had very strong growth opportunities and those growth opportunities could be accomplished with minimal CAPEX. If there is one thing the Street loves, its growth. If there is another thing the Street loves, its not having to put up a bunch of cash up front to get that growth.

Today the company released the PEA it had completed on the La Colorada project.

The PEA showed the following highlights:

  • Initial Capital Expenditure for the project is estimated at $14.5 million with a Sustaining Capital of $11.7 million.
  • Operating costs of $620/oz over the LOM, including $1.50/t mining costs, $2.36/t processing costs, and a 3.4:1 strip ratio
  • Gold equivalent production of 53,000oz per year over 9 years
  • Pre-tax Net Present Value (“NPV”) of $278 million using a 5% discount rate at $1500/oz gold

Overall the numbers would be mediocre if it were not for the capital costs, which at $14.5M is chump change for a project this size.  This is even less than the my estimate of $25M to which I commented: There are not many companies that can boast near term production potential with so little up front costs.

When I had shorted Argonaut against a portion of my Aurizon long it was with the idea that the quarterly results might show disappointment and the idea that the gold price might be susceptible to an even bigger pullback. El Castillo has underperformed the last couple of quarters, and with a mine that is of as low a grade as El Castillo the operators run a very fine line between success and failure.

That could still be the case, but having witnessed the stocks continuing rise I am reluctant to wait and find out. I got out Monday when the PEA came out.  At this level ($8) the stock is too expensive to buy.  I have to just admit I made a mistake by selling it in the first place (I owned both Aurizon and Argonaut back in October, but sold Argonaut after poor 3rd quarter results), and move on.

Is Aurizon a Value Trap?

How bad was that decision I made back in October to sell Argonaut and hold Aurizon?  Well, I owned both stocks until the middle of October, when I sold Argonaut after less than impressive 3rd quarter results.

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This is a painful chart for me to look at.

Nevertheless, pain is a necessary condition of learning, and it helps some time to agonize over your own stupidity for a while, just so that its really grilled into you not to do the same thing again.

With that in mind, what did I do wrong?

Aurizon Mines: Visions of Joanna someday

In contrast to Argonaut, Aurizon does not seem to be in much of a rush at all to bring Joanna into production.  This timeline says it all:

May 12th 2008

Aurizon first commissioned a pre-feasibility study on Joanna.

November 11, 2009

Aurizon finally received that pre-feasibility study and proceed to a full feasibility study.

September 14th 2010

Aurizon notifies shareholders that the original recovery process assumed (called the Albion process) would show lower recoveries and higher costs than first anticipated. Additional metallurgical test work would be done and the study delayed until mid 2011. http://www.aurizon.com/English/News/News-Releases/News-Releases-Details/2010/Aurizon-Reports-On-Progress-Of-Joanna-Feasibility-Study/default.aspx

August 11, 2011

Aurizon delays the feasibility study for Joanna again, saying: “the projected capital and operating costs appear to be significantly higher than previously anticipated. The increased scope of the project, as a result of the expanded mineral resource base, has increased capital costs, including those associated with an autoclave process. The costs of ore and waste stockpiles, tailings and of materials and equipment have also all been trending higher, along with the gold price.”

January 11, 2012

Another update giving an ETA: Feasibility study work on the Hosco deposit will continue in 2012 with completion of the study anticipated by mid-year. The feasibility study will incorporate a reserve update based on the increased mineral resource estimate announced on June 13, 2011, together with results of metallurgical pilot tests, a geotechnical study, updated capital and operating cost estimates, and other relevant studies.

Its been almost 4 years since the original pre-feasibility study on Joanna was complete! At this rate they should be mining by 2100.

As is obvious from above, there have been some metallurgical difficulties with Joanna. Was I too optimistic with my analysis?

To compare, the original pre-feasibility study assumed $187M in CAPEX. The operating costs were estimated at $434/oz. My analysis assumed $215M CAPEX, and operating costs of $717/oz. I think I have been safely conservative on the operating costs. I may turn out to be less so with the CAPEX.

The more fundamental point is that when I invested in Aurizon I strayed from my usual criteria for choosing mining companies in a couple key respects. Both of these have come back to haunt me:

A. Look for miners with a strong pipeline of growth. The market likes growth. It does not always appreciate value. The reason there is supposed “value stocks” is because the market does not appreciate value in itself.

B. Capital costs must be low and mining methods must be simple. The best mine to invest in is a simple heap leach deposit. High capital costs tend to get higher. Complicated mining and recovery processes tend to underperform to plan.

So what am I going to do about it?

Unfortunately there is not much I can do. Argonaut is $8 and Aurizon is $5. Most of the move in AR has been done. I’m not going to chase it at this point. Aurizon is probably much akin to OceanaGold, which I have played much more intelligently by buying the stock at $2.20 and selling it at $2.70 again and again. With Aurizon those numbers are probably around $5 and $6. Indeed I did sell some Aurizon around the $6 range the last time it was there but I think that its time to recognize that without a strong feasibility study for Joanna, that $6-$7 is about all you can expect here.

Portfolio

I’m getting too many stocks in my portfolio.  I am also seeing my cash position dwindle because I keep picking up new stocks without selling old ones.  I am still extremely cautious about Europe, and being so, I am getting uncomfortable with both of these trends in my portfolio.  In the next couple weeks I am going to reevaluate what I own and start paring where I need to.  The problem, as it always is, is that I like the prospects of all the stocks I own.  Unfortunately, as I think I showed rather clearly in my last post describing my 2011 performance, I am just as often wrong about that as I am right.  The likelihood of my own fallibility must never be underestimated.

Letter 27: My Deutsche Bank Short, Increasing my Gramercy Capital Long, and trading in OceanaGold for Golden Minerals

Why I am Short Deutsche Bank

Its been a while since I talked about my shorts.

I typically wouldn’t have much in the way of shorts.  At the most they would make up a couple percent.  I don’t have a great track record of predicting when companies are going  to fall.

I tend to pick them too early.  I think its a classic trap of a value investor;  you see an overvalued company and you conclude that it has to go down.  Unfortunately that is not the way the market works; until there is a catalyst a stock can continue to become more overvalued to the point where you as an investor have no value.

Right now, however, shorts make up a fairly significant percentage of my account.  About 15% (though not the practice account I post here because shorting is not supported by RBC).  These are extraordinary times.

I have a small short in Argonaut Gold that I mentioned last week.  I continue to have a short in Salesforce.com that has done quite well as the cloud computing phenomenon has come back down to earth.  I have a short on Tourmaline, an albeit well managed but highly valued natural gas producer in an environment of dismal natural gas prices.

The biggest short I have is in Deutsche Bank.  It makes up about 8% of my overall portfolio.   I added to it over the last week as DB made yet another failed attempt to stay above $40.  Together with a smaller short in UBS, it makes up my “at some point Europe is going to go down the toilet” bet.

Why Deutsche Bank?  Simple thesis – it is insanely levered.  Here is a snapshot of the European banks common equity to assets.  Note the location of Deutsche Bank on the x-axis.

Since that time Dexia blown up.

Jim Grant makes the same point on Deutsche Bank about half way into this interview on CNBC.

Wholesale Funding

The other thing about Deutsche Bank, and to a lessor extent UBS, is that they are not strong depository institutions.  What that means is that they do not have a large base of deposits to fund their assets.  Particularly in the case of Deutsche Bank they go to the market and borrow money from other banks, from money markets, from pretty much anybody who is willing to lend it, and this is the money they use to fund their lending.  When times are good this is a great strategy.  Deposits are a more expensive (higher interest rate) form of funding then these wholesale channels (wholesale is kind of the catch-all term that defines all these short term lending sources).  But when times are bad, these channels dry up a lot faster then deposits.  They can be called quickly in the event of a loss of confidence.

A good proxy for the degree of reliance on wholesale funding is the net stable funding ratio.  FT presented the ratio, along with the following graph, in an article a few months back.

One good proxy for this reliance is the net stable funding ratio (NSFR) we have regularly discussed in all our recent sector and company reports. Currently, CASA and SG are among the Euro banks with the lowest NSFR, together with Bankia, UniCredit, Commerzbank + Intesa.

While Deutsche Bank isn’t the worst of the bunch, it is far from the best.  Combine that with high leverage and you have a recipe for instability.

All the Devils are at Deutsche Bank

I mentioned last week that I was reading “All the Devils are Here”.  Towards the end of the book there is a chapter on the demise of Countrywide.  Countrywide, like Deutsche Bank, was not a depository institution.  As a result, like Deutsche Bank, Countrywide depended on the wholesale funding markets to fund their assets (in their case mortage loans).  It was pointed out by Kenneth Bruce, the Merrill Lynch analyst that followed the company at the time, that “liquidity Is the Achilles Heel” of Countrywide.  Said Bruce:

“We cannot understate the importance of liquidity for a specialty finance company like CFC.  If enough financial pressure is placed on  CFC, or if the market loses confidence in its ability to function properly, then the model can break.”

The difference, at least so far, between what happened to Countrywide and what has happened to Deutsche Bank is that Countrywide went to the Federal Reserve and pleaded with them to use their emergency lending authority.  The Fed refused, perhaps because months earlier CFC had switched away from the Fed’s regulatory oversight to the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS)  because they saw greater advantages (read: less strict rules).

Thus far Deutsche Bank has been saved by the unlimited lending arm of the ECB.  They certainly would be struggling to fund themselves through their traditional wholesale channels.  We know that liquidity has dried up in Europe.  We know that the wholesale funding markets (money markets, collateralized repo’s) are getting harder to access and are acceptable less and less forms of collateral (read: German bonds are the new holy grail).

Meanwhile while DB has reduced leverage to the peripheral sovereigns over the last year, they still have fairly significant gross exposure.  This gets lost in the shuffle however, because the news tends to focus strictly on the sovereign exposure.  For example, this WSJ article points out that:

Deutsche Bank has a relatively low total of €4.4 billion in exposure to the sovereign debt of the troubled euro-zone nations. Its exposure to Italy grew to €2.3 billion at the end of the third quarter from €1 billion at the end of the second quarter…Deutsche Bank has largely hedged its Italian exposure, much of which was inherited as a result of its Postbank acquisition, from €8 billion at the beginning of the year.

True… but gross exposure to the region is significantly higher.   You have to look past the sovereign.  Below are estimates of DB’s gross exposure to credit in the periphery.  DB equity is about E53B for comparison.

Having significant exposure to financials, corporates and retail in Italy, Ireland and Spain is not a good thing right now.  Given the austerity measures being imposed how bad do you think the inevitable recession is going to be in these countries?  I think its going to be pretty bad.

You might also ask a question about what othe exposure DB has.  Given that assets total around E2.2t and periphery exposure is around E100B, clearly there are other things on the balance sheet.  Well as it turns out they have a fair bit of exposure to something nebulously called “credit market debt”.

As per a WSJ called “Old Debts Dog Europe’s Banks”:

Four years after instruments like “collateralized debt obligations” and “leveraged loans” became dirty words because of the massive losses they inflicted on holders, European banks still own tens of billions of euros of such assets. They also have sizable portfolios of U.S. commercial real-estate loans and subprime mortgages that could remain under pressure until the global economy recovers.

The Journal provided the following comparison of this “credit market debt” exposure for the various European banks:

Again to the Journal, this time speaking specifically about the make-up of Deutsche’s credit market assets:

Legacy assets are also haunting Deutsche Bank AG. The Frankfurt-based bank is holding €2.9 billion in U.S. residential mortgage assets, including subprime loans. It has an additional €20.2 billion tied up in commercial mortgages and whole loans. The bank says it has hedged nearly all of its residential mortgage exposure.

Analysts at Mediobanca estimate that Deutsche’s exposure to such assets amounts to more than 150% of its tangible equity—a key measure of its ability to absorb unexpected losses.

Deutsche Bank said it plans to let most of its legacy assets mature, so it won’t face losses selling them at discounted prices.

And don’t forget the fact that the main business of Deutsche Bank is investment banking.  With the seizing up of credit in Europe, that business has to be feeling some pain.  Indeed, after reporting 3rd quarter results the CEO Josef Ackerman said:

“During the third quarter, the operating environment was more difficult than at any time since the end of 2008,”  adding that the bank’s performance was “inevitably” hit.

Management Matters

One final point. Deutsche Bank announced back in  July that their long time CEO (Ackerman) was stepping down and would be replaced by co-CEO’s.  now getting back to the book All the Devils are Here, if there was a common trait that pervaded all of the worst of Wall Street in the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, it was turmoil within upper management.  Maybe the change over at DB will go swimmingly.  But co-CEO’s sounds like a recipe for secrecy and oneupmanship to me.  As the WSJ reported:

The bank is resorting to a dual CEO structure for the fourth time in its history, despite the potential for conflict and even a power struggle between the two, because handing the reins to Mr. Jain alone was seen as too much of a culture shock, according to people familiar with the matter...The bank has been working to diversify its earnings mix away from investment banking, which has recently accounted for about 70% of its profit. In the third quarter, investment banking accounted for less than 10% of total profit.

In the end…

Look  I don’t have crystal ball that says that Deutsche Bank is inevitably going to fail.  I’m sure there are plenty of analysts out there that understand the in’s and out’s of the company’s business better than I have time to do.  What I do know is that the evidence points to the conclusion that Deutsche Bank is a bank very dependent on the ECB.  The whole bet on Europe is, in my opinion, a bet of whether the ECB eventually steps up to the plate and starts bailing out the sovereigns (and either directly or indirectly the banks) or they don’t.  If they don’t, DB, being very dependent on ECB largesse, has to do poorly.  Thus, the hedge.

The Confusing Balance Sheet of Gramercy Capital (and yet I’m still buying more)

Gramercy has been in a bit of a free fall of late.

The decline in the stock price to the $2.30 area made me want to re-evaluate my position in the stock.  Not so much with the intention of liquidating my position mind you.  I was far more interested in whether I should buy more.

I began by stepping through the Gramercy third quarter 10-Q, followed by the recent filings, in particular the 8-K filing made on December 8th that detailed the pro-forma financials ex-realty.  Unfortunately, as tends to be the case with Gramercy, the review left me with as many questions as answers.

I have to say that Gramercy has some of the most difficult financial statements that I have ever seen.  I spent two years researching Dynegy and even with all their SPE’s and off-balance sheet transactions it was still easier to understand what they were up to then it is with Gramercy.  The problem with Gramercy is a combination of

  1. it being difficult to determine what is held at corporate and what is held in the CDO’s and until recently realty
  2. there being overlap between the holdings of corporate and the CDO’s and realty and so some items are netted out even though their liability is non-recourse to corporate
  3. the fact that the CDO’s are basically a black box unless you have access to the managers report and that is not public knowledge (I am still using the only publicly available report which is from March and so therefore somewhat dated)
  4. the company really doesn’t make much of an effort to clarify any of the above.

Anyways, with all that in mind, lets try to draw some conclusions.

Net Asset Value vs. Book Value

One positive of late is that for the first time it is relatively easy to determine the book value of Gramercy corporate.  Up until now the mess of CDO and Realty divisions made it a nightmare.  With Realty gone, proforma statements were released in mid-December and stated clearly that there are $260M in assets, $40M in liabilities, and $88M in preferred.

Book is $132M or $2.60 per share.  Done deal right?

Wrong.  Everything is more complicated then it seems with Gramercy.

The first complication is that Gramercy corporate owns a number of reasonably senior securities from their CDO.  Because these securities are also liabilities (in the CDO) they are netted out and disappear on the balance sheet.

“In addition, as of September 30, 2011, the Company holds an aggregate of $54.0 million of par value Class A-1, A-2 and B securities previously issued by the Company’s CDOs that are available for re-issuance. The fair value of the repurchased CDO bonds is approximately $40.3 million as of September 30, 2011.”

However the liability in the CDO is, like all else in the CDO, non-recourse, and so the asset on corporate is legitimately accreditive to book.  So even though the value of the notes are not on the balance sheet, they should be.

The next thing that is terribly confusing is what is included in the real estate investments.  According to the pro-forma those investments total about $80M at cost:

And maybe that’s the end of the story. The problem is that the company said in their last 10-Q (which is for the same period as these pro-forma results) that real estate assets after the transfer of the realty division was complete would total $121.3M with corresponding mortgages held in the CDOs:

“The Company anticipates that all transfers will be completed by December 31, 2011, after which, the Company expects to retain a portfolio of commercial real estate with an aggregate book value of approximately $121.3 million, encumbered by non-recourse mortgage debt held by the Company’s CDOs totaling $94.3 million, which mortgage debt is eliminated on the Company’s consolidated financial statements.”

The (unanswered) question that I have is whether the netting out of the assets and liabilities of these real estate assets includes is included in the above $80M?  My guess is that it doesn’t; that because the asset and liability are both on the balance sheet (with the liability being within the CDO) they are netted out just like the CDO notes.   But I’m not sure.  If I’m right, then the true book should reflect the extra $27M of the commercial real estate portfolio above and beyond the mortgage debt.

But what’s it worth?

The last, and perhaps most ambiguous question about the balance sheet  is what the assets are actually worth if they are sold.  As noted above, the real estate investments are recorded at cost.  I assume the $121.3M is a number also recorded at cost, though that is not clear.  But what could this real estate fetch today?  Is it substantially less then cost? It wasn’t clear in the pro-forma whether Gramercy chose cost because it was the lessor of cost/fair value, or because they just had to value them at cost.

As for the CDO’s, the notes are recorded at fair value, which means they are being valued at quoted market prices.  In reality the CDO debt is either worth all or nothing.  Either the CDOs have the cash in run-off to pay back the A-1, the A-2 and the B or they don’t, so its more likely the number is either $54M as they are fairly senior notes and so they are likely to get paid off.

To help make my point with the real estate investments take a look at one of Gramercy’s investments that you do have the information to analyze to some depth.

The joint venture 200 Franklin Square Drive, Somerset, New Jersey is carried at $558,000. Yet income from the property was $29,000 in Q3 and $90,000 for the first 3 quarters. So based on its book value it is returning 20%. I think the book value needs to be higher.

 

Now this is a case where the book is on the low side. There could just as easily be cases where the asset is booked on the high side. The point is, this whole valuing Gramercy is a ballpark game at best.

What is the deal with CDO-2005?

The deal is that CDO-2005 failed its over-collateralization test again in October after having passed it the previous quarter.

Presumably the main catalyst in the failure was the write down of whole loans to Las Vegas Hilton and Jameson Inns.  Together these loans were carried at $42.5M on the CDO books.

The question now is just how far underwater is CDO-2005 and will that CDO be able to cure itself and begin to paying out money to Gramercy again?  Well while I don’t have the most up to date data, I can still take a stab at answering that.

As of March 2011 CO-2005 had an outstanding note balance of about $741M.  Presumably in curing that balance the first time round (it was cured in July), the note balance was reduced somewhat, to lets say $700M.   Based on the current over-collateralization of 115.53%, that would mean current assets in the CDO are around $810M.  In order to pass the test with $810M of assets, the outstanding note balance has to be reduced to $686M.  In other words the company needs to see a $14M cash infusion to get the CDO passing again and begin seeing cash flow to corporate.

Where is that cash going to come from?  From the interest that is diverted to paying down principle for as long as the CDO is not in compliance.  As shown below, that interest, which was paid out in the previous quarter as the CDO was in compliance, is a little less than $5.5M per quarter.

The other possibility is that as loans within the CDO are paid off both the numerator and the denominator of the over-collateralization test drop (the assets decline as well as the notes that are paid off with the proceeds).  Eventually this would cure the CDO though it would take a lot more run-off, about $90M by my calculation.

The conclusion here is that CDO-2005 is not dead by any means, but that we should not expect to see cash flow from it for another couple of quarters.

Management Incentive

One of the concerns with any of these REIT’s is whether the interests of management are aligned with shareholders.  The concern is generally that management wants to keep getting paid and so they won’t necessarily jump at the chance to sell the company, instead preferring to live of the cashflow (and in a worse case the cash) to pay their salaries and bonuses.  I think this is the concern of Indaba, who as a large preferred shareholder is attempting to add a board member to get that cash used in share holders interests.

Along those lines though, it looks to me like recent efforts have aligned management fairly well. The have been provided with incentive to sell the company by the end of June 2011.  Below is a list of significant shareholders of the company published as part of a 14C on December 19th.  Executive Officers as a group own 2.3M common shares in the company, including over 700,000 shares owned by Cozzi.

What I Think

Adding it up, there is no question that there is a lot of question marks here in the numbers.  It is difficult to determine the true value of the real estate owned. It is difficult to determine when and if CDO-2005 will cure.  It is difficult to know with confidence whether there are loans in CDO-2006 that may fail, causing it to fail its over-collateralization test and thus putting the company in the position where there really is minimal cash flow coming into corporate.

The best I can do is to take the fact that the book is $2.40/share, that $150M of that book is cash, that there is another $50M off balance sheet that is invested in higher end securities in CDO-2005 and CDO -2006 that are almost certain to pay off at par eventually, and that given that the US economy appears to be stabilizing and not falling back into a severe recession, it is reasonable to presume that CDO-2006 will continue to pay out $7M of cash to corporate every quarter for the forseeable future.

Given all of this, I added to my position in Gramercy this week, and I will continue to add as long as the stock trades below the $2.40 level.  I was sad to see that we had a bump up in the price on Friday.  We will have to see if it sticks.  If not I will be ready to buy more.

Gold (and now Silver!) Stock Update

Apart from Gramercy, I made a few small changes to my portfolio this week.  I sold out of OceanaGold at $2.45.  I had planned on holding the stock until the $2.60 range again but I saw better opportunities but was reluctant to become even more leveraged into gold stocks at this point.

That better opportunity that I saw was Golden Minerals.  My broker told me to get in on a private placement of AUM back in the fall of 2010.  Nah, I don’t think so I said.  I think that placement was at $18.  The stock got as high as $24.  I bought it this week for $6.25.   Pays to wait.

Golden Minerals is another one of these junior explorers (though they do have a small silver mining operation in Mexico now) that has gotten obliterated in the last year.  The stock is down 75% off its high.  Luckily for the company, that private placement went through with some other poor bastards taking the brunt of it, and so the company is flush with cash.  With AUM you are paying $6 and getting a company with a little over $2/share in cash and an indicated and inferred resource of a little over 6Moz ounces of gold equivalent at a 50:1 silver to gold ratio.

The company’s producing mine in Mexico, Velardena, looks promising, but it remains to be seen if they can ramp up production as expected (they want to be producing 4,000oz of gold and 214,000oz of silver by Q4 2012).  More interesting to me is the project in Argentina, where they have a fairly high grade (300g/t) silver deposit that sits at 60Moz right now and looks like it has lots of room to grow.

At any rate, its another example of a beaten up junior that was worth a heck of a lot more a year ago then it is now.  It seems like a reasonable speculation that it will recover at least some of that value this year if gold and silver prices don’t crater.

Portfolio

Letter 26: A Move in ACFC, the end of tax loss selling for gold stocks, Mispricing of Aurizon Mines, and All the Devils are Here

All the Devils are Here (though most have probably moved to Europe)

Over the winter break I read the book All the Devils are Here, by Bethany Mclean and Joe Nocera. The book essentially traces out all the strands that culminated in the panic of September 2008. The book identified the following factors:

  1. A reliance on ideology instead of analysis. In particular this applies to the Federal Reserve and Alan Greenspan, whose ideological “market is always right” view permeated the decisions of the Fed and to some extent those of the other regulatory bodies. But more generally, ideology, specifically free market ideology, seemed to permeate through all the political and financial institutions to the point that it replaced a sober look at reality. Similarly, for many traders and investment bankers, an ideological reliance on “the model” often led to an ignorance of the potential risks of an outlier scenario
  2. The absence of regulation. For a variety of reasons (the power of the lobby groups, the political infighting between the regulatory bodies, the ideological free market view of the participants and the myopic focus on regulators on Fannie and Freddie) an attempt to regulate the subprime industry was hardly even contemplated until it was too late.
  3. The development of securitization. The most important consequence of the innovations to pool mortgages, to tranche pools, and then to create pools of pools (CDO’s) was that the lender and the borrower became further and further divorced by more degrees of separation. The securitization process created so many layers of intermediaries between the party who actually ended up with the loan on their books and the party that took the money that risks were easily lost in the translation.
  4. The rubber stamped AAA status provided by the ratings agencies. Some books focus on how the rating agencies didn’t understand what they were rating. Mclean and Nocera point out that the revenue structure of the agencies was doomed to be corrupted. A system where the raters are paid by the producers of the securities they rate might be considered to be an insane one. The result was that the agencies were played off against one another by the investment banks; market share went to the most relaxed rating. Add to this the fact that the agencies, particularly Moody’s, became focused on profits at the expense of their inherent conflict of interest, and you had a situation ripe for abuse.
  5. Greed. Politicians more concerned with their own campaign donations than with promoting sustainable public policy. Company executives intent strictly on their own promotion and profit. Mortgage originators with essentially no moral compass at all. The system was (and is) corrupt.
  6. A lack of understanding. The same characters at play as with greed. So few people saw the disaster coming. Sure some did, there were a few regulators and a few hedge funds that saw how unsustainable the leverage being piled on in the mortgage sector was. But the vast majority didn’t have a clue. Even the supposed smart money didn’t really get smart until 2006-2007.

It is this last point, the lack of understanding, that I think is most relevant to what we face today. It really surprised me how little the people in influential and powerful positions understood the concepts that they were making decisions with regard to. Even Hank Paulson, who is actually portrayed in quite a positive light, was completely blind to the corruption and leverage being amassed in the mortgage market.

This naturally begs the question of Europe: how many of the politicians and bureaucrats in the EU really understand the situation they are trying to navigate? Do they really know the risks inherent in the decisions that they are making? Do they even really understand the banking sector they are trying to protect?

The last 6 months for me has been an education in how the modern banking system works. I have been trying to read all that I can, all the boring, technical aspects. And I don’t think for a minute think that I’ve wrapped my head around it. There are so many moving and interdependent parts. It’s also not a very tangible subject. It simply isn’t something that is easily understood.

Thus I think it’s a legitimate question as to whether the bureaucrats of Europe have the understanding required to navigate the minefield of sovereign defaults and banking bankruptcies. As Lehman showed, it only takes one mistake to create a loss of confidence that spirals uncontrollably.

How can you take on risk with this in mind?

The end of (tax loss) selling?

The week after tax-loss selling is always an interesting one.  It provides the first glimpse into whether a security has been facing unrelenting selling because of investors simply wishing to take their losses (and their tax breaks) and move on, or whether something more nefarious is at play.  Along the lines of the former, this week provided a rather marked jump in a number of the regional bank stocks that I have initiated a position in.  Most conspicuous of these moves was that of Atlantic Coast Financial.

A Take-over Imminent for ACFC?

ACFC had a rather astounding 50%+ move this week.  I really have no idea what precipitated the move.  To take it with a grain of salt, the volume for the stock this week was less than spectacular, though the same could be said for almost the entire move down.

As I pointed out last week the stock is a bit of a flyer; the bank is a mortgage lender in one of the most crippled mortgage markets (Florida), they have bad loans coming out their wazoo, and a stock that has fallen from $10 to $1 in less than a year generally does not do so on speculative panic alone.  Nevertheless, part of the story is the book value, which even with 3 years of bad loan write-downs lies at a rather surreal $19 per share (versus a share price of $1.70 when I bought it).

The other part of the story is simply the realization that what is going on with this bank (and many of these little community banks that got caught up in making bad loans at the wrong time) is a race between the write-downs of their past transgressions and the earnings of their current performing loan book.   With ACFC it is not at all clear to me that the bad loans will win out; in fact I tried to make the case last week that with a little luck (and an improving economy) the performing book may very soon be able to out-earn the losses on a consistent basis.  If this happens, the shares are clearly worth more than 10% of book value.  Even if it just becomes a possibility, a shrewd competitor may be tempted to take a plunge.  I constructed the chart below to try to see where ACFC is in that process.  The chart compares earnings before provisions (black) to the quarter over quarter change in non-performing loans (red).  Its basically a look at whether the company is out-earning the loans going bad each quarter.  The 3rd quarter was the first in four that the black won out.

Community Bankers Trust: Another Regional Bank with a Move of its Own

While ACFC was the best of the lot of regionals, there were others that showed signs of life.  Community Bankers Trust surged on Friday.  The stock remains at about 1/3 of book value.  If it were not for Europe and the ever-impending doom there, I would add more.  As well, Oneida Financial continues to push higher.  Unlike ACFC, BOCH and BTC, Oneida is a terribly boring bank trading at about book that is probably going to do nothing but increase in price by 10% a year and pay a 5% dividend until one day it gets bought out.  At some point I might get bored with with relatively low return, but in this environment, I am happy to take a reward with so little risk.

Will Gold Stocks Rise now that Tax-loss Selling is over?

As for the golds, Esperanza, Canaco and Geologix all are showing classic signs of a let-up in tax loss selling.  All are well above where I bought them.  Aurizon, on the other hand, continues to be sold rather indiscriminately.  Yes, I realize that the price of gold is getting clobbered on a regular basis.  I can appreciate that investors may be questioning the wisdom of holding gold as a hedge to anything given the fact that it seems to dramatically underperform on risk-off days.

Still, I scratch my head at Aurizon.  Here is a low cost gold producer that is comparatively less correlated to the price of gold than most of its competitors.   For one, if you are low cost you are by definition high margin.  Thus, a $30 move in the price of gold is of much less impact to a producer with $1000/oz margin (like Aurizon), than say a producer with a $500/oz margin.  Yet Aurizon regularly trades down MORE than your average gold producer on the down days.

Going Short Argonaut Gold and long Aurizon Mines

So confounded have I been that in order to hedge my risk with Aurizon I have decided to take a short position in a fellow gold producer, Argonaut Gold.  To be sure, there is nothing wrong with Argonaut Gold.  I wrote the company up rather glowingly a couple months ago.  However that was at $5, and now AR trades at $7, while in the same time Aurizon has fallen to less than $5. Below is a comparison of the key metrics of both companies.

So to briefly summarize the above, Aurizon produces more than twice as much gold, it produces over double the cash flow, and to top it off, Aurizon’s 3rd quarter was stronger than Argonaut’s.  Argonaut potentially has a better pipeline of projects, but this is more than nullified by the fact that Aurizon trades at almost half the price on a per producing ounce basis, produces those ounces at $50-$100 cheaper, and has over $1 in cash on its balance sheet while Argonaut has a mere 30 cents. It simply doesn’t make sense.

While I remain bullish the price of gold, I also remain wary that I am not very right in this bullishness at the moment, and so it seems like the prudent thing to do to short what seems relatively over valued and buy what seems relatively undervalued.  Anyways, that is what I did.

I also bought back OceanaGold for another run.  Its getting to be repetitive, but it has been a consistant source of profits.  Buy OceanaGold below $2.20 and sell it above $2.70.   I must have done this 3 times already in the last 9 months.

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