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Friday, October 17, 2008

Buffett says buy America.

Warren Buffett wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times today. Perhaps you've heard of him. He's a rich, famous, smart dude.

A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.

This is good advice. These are not typical times.

A little history here: During the Depression, the Dow hit its low, 41, on July 8, 1932. Economic conditions, though, kept deteriorating until Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933. By that time, the market had already advanced 30 percent.

Absolutely correct. The decline bottomed at 41 from a peak of 385 over 3 years. It was a 90% decline. The Dow topped at 14000 a year ago and is presently 9000. If he's saying this is the same thing there could be a lot more to go on the downside.

I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month — or a year — from now. What is likely, however, is that the market will move higher, perhaps substantially so, well before either sentiment or the economy turns up.

I hear you, dude. Me neither. You're right, they'll be up before people believe it. But it just seems early.

Now here's something that wasn't in his op-ed piece, from the Berkshire Hathaway 10K:

The estimated fair value of equity index and credit default derivative contracts at December 31, 2007 was approximately $6.4 billion, an increase of approximately $3.1 billion from December 31, 2006. The increase was primarily due to new contracts entered into during the year for which Berkshire received premiums of approximately $2.9 billion. As of December 31, 2007, Berkshire’s maximum exposure under these contracts was approximately $40 billion, an increase of approximately $16 billion from December 31, 2006.

Though it doesn't say it very clearly, these are put contracts Berkshire has sold to collect premium (and presumably buy indexes at some undisclosed price).

This from the last 10Q:

At June 30, 2008, the estimated fair value of these contracts was $5,845 million and the weighted average volatility was approximately 23%. The impact on fair value from changes to volatility is summarized below. The values of contracts in an actual exchange are affected by market conditions and perceptions of the buyers and sellers. Actual values in an exchange may differ significantly from the values produced by any mathematical model. Dollars are in millions.

Hypothetical change in volatility (percentage points) Hypothetical fair value

Increase 2 percentage points
$ 6,408

Increase 4 percentage points

Decrease 2 percentage points

Decrease 4 percentage points

I'm not sure what kind of mark they have on volatility but my indicator says it's through the roof. It'll be interesting to see what they have to say about these when they report.

I'm not saying his advice is right or wrong. I think the op-ed piece is intended to help build confidence in the markets. And it may work -- its the most read piece on the site today. And yes, like he says, he's buying America -- $40 billion or so worth of it if his puts come to fruition.

Google 3Q:2008 results

Google missed consensus revenues by a little bit. TAC ratio was constant vs last quarter. The tax rate was 24% which was a little light relative to some models and bolstered profitability. The real surprise came on the cost front, where Google really put the clamp down on expenses. They indicated it was likely temporary and that they intend to continue to spend.

A few months ago, I highlighted an article in the NY Times about Google jacking up prices on day care and Brin objecting to some of the perks employees were provided. This did indicate a change in the way Google was approaching their costs. I also think it indicates they're seeing some writing on the wall in terms of profitability going forward. They're not going to have the same kind of heady growth indefinitely. Social networks have been disappointing relative to their hopes. Youtube has had to backtrack on promises of no ads in the content because they couldn't figure out another way to monetize it. Things have not gone exactly as planned.

Surprisingly, with finance and automobiles making up such a large portion of online ad budgets, they saw no visible reduction in business. I wonder, though, how much business in those verticals has slowed since the end of the quarter. The psychology out there is that consumers will not spend because of fear – shouldn't that suggest lower ad budgets heading into the holidays? What's the point in a lot of advertising if its not driving sales? Recently, the head of GM's ad budget said they would be cutting back on online advertising in absolute dollars for the first time ever. If asset prices are falling everywhere, I would think keyword rates are going to fall also. That would erode Google's profitability at its core.

They're very clever guys. They saw the need to cut back on spending before it blew them up in the quarter! That's really good stuff. I doubt they can continue to pull rabbits out of their hat if the core business keeps slowing… and it should with consumers so scared.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Intel 3Q:2008 results

Revenues came in relatively close to consensus at 10.2 billion – the street was ~10.3 billion. Gross margins were slightly better at 59%. They guided to 10.1 - 10.9 billion for Q4, which puts the midpoint at 10.5 billion – the street is at ~10.77 billion. Gross margin guidance is also in line at 59% +/- 2%. Atom processors, the ones that go in those mini-notebooks that are starting to crop up everywhere, sold very well. Selling prices on those are lower than the company average and will skew the mix lower going forward as they are the fastest growing product in the line presently.

Sequential revenue guidance for the fourth quarter is the lowest it's been in many years – typically Intel expects a big sales bump going into the holidays. Not this year, huh. The company said they're cautious about the economy. Join the club.

The stock is up a little. I have to say, the outlook was better than I feared it would be based on the present abnormally slow supply chain build – maybe others like myself were expecting worse. I expect the pop is temporary. I have said before that I think Intel is a low growth company and the premium multiple it receives is somewhat unjustified. I think fair value in the stock is $12 - $20. We are in the mid-range of that band (though we are actually in it which is a refreshing change) and the company is lobbing out revenue forecasts that may still be too aggressive. I expect as the economy continues to slow and multiple reality sets in the stock will slide lower.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fifty percent retracement in the S&P

In 1929, the Dow Jones dropped from 380ish to slightly under 200, a 48% drop. It then rallied to 300 over the next 4 months, which was a 50% move off the bottom. Two years later the Dow Jones stood at 40, down 90% from the high reached in 1929.

In 2008, the S&P 500 future dropped from 1260 to 840, a 33% drop over a 4 week period. It then rallied back 50% to 1050. The Nasdaq 100 future dropped from 1790 to 1200. It then rallied back 50% to 1490. And here we are.


Treasury investing in bank stocks, FDIC insuring damn near everything

The government, in their efforts to save our flawed banking system and spur lending activities, has opted to perpetuate existing conditions by injecting more capital into major banks. The bailout plan continues to disproportionately benefit a select few companies chosen by administration preference behind closed doors. The assumption in place must be that the banks are more market savvy than the Treasury and will put the capital to better use than the TARP fund would.

It seems a bit underhanded that the Treasury just two weeks ago was in front of congress saying they needed to create this fund to buy securities. Paulson and Bernanke were grilled about the culpability of the banks. Democrats raged about executive compensation caps. They told congress if the package wasn't approved immediately we would fail. What seemed like an afterthought attachment that they might buy shares in banks has now become the centerpiece of their strategy.

That said, this is probably a better plan than burying the securities. It would be very hard for the TARP to determine what they owned and how to deal with it – thus far the banks have not been able to do that and they bought the stuff in the first place.

The troubling aspect of this strategy is that it does nothing to correct the conditions that got these banks into dire straits. In fact, it seems to validate their over-levered balance sheets. If the plan comes with stipulations that the banks should not have risky investments, what are they to do with the risky investments already on the balance sheet? Those investments are no less risky and now probably fail an acid test for new investment. How will the dangerous paper go away if they're only allowed to own good paper?

The FDIC has decided to insure everything in sight, raising insurance on accounts to infinity and protecting new preferred securities for banks to pass between one another that will be issued in conjunction with this plan. They will also be offering counter-party insurance.

I understand the plan but I don't understand how it fixes the infrastructure problems. Once again, it prolongs any kind of true realization of the issues. The hangover is extended.

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