Sunday, March 1, 2009

Uncertain Asset Values and the Stock Market

“Value investors prefer to estimate the intrinsic value of a company by looking first at the assets and then at the current earnings power of a company.” This comes from the book “Value Investing: From Graham to Buffett and Beyond” by Greenwald, Kahn, Sonkin, and van Biema.

In value investing, the value of the assets is the first thing you should look at. Value, however, is uncertain and decisions about value are risky…that is, placing a bet on the value of an asset is a risky decision…and this throws us into a probabilistic world.

But uncertainty comes in different flavors. For example, in some situations we have a relatively good idea about what the underlying outcome distribution looks like. Games of chance like roulette or blackjack have uncertain outcomes but the probability distribution of possible outcomes is well known. On the other hand, the possible outcomes of a war are uncertain and we generally have very little knowledge of the probability distribution of possible outcomes. So at one end of the spectrum of uncertain situations we can say that our estimated probability is objectively determined, while at the other end we have to admit that our estimated probability distribution is entirely subjective.

The United States is at war right now…at war against an economic and financial crises. And, investors, as well as everyone else, have no idea what the probability distribution of possible outcomes looks like. We can’t even approximate such a distribution from historical statistics because there is insufficient information to produce any kind of a result that would be relevant in the current situation. The information that we are getting seems to be getting worse and worse.

This, to me, is why financial markets are performing as they are at the present time. No one can state with any certainty the values relating to the vast majority of assets in the United States.

Until people can gain some confidence that they know…even approximately…what is the value of assets relevant to them…they will not be willing to place substantial “bets” with much confidence. And, this will mean that financial markets will continue to meander lower.

One effort to get a handle on asset values is the “stress test” exercise of the Federal Government on large commercial banks. The effort is, of course, to see whether or not the asset values of these banks will hold up in a relatively severe economic downturn. The outcome of these stress tests will determine, to a large degree, the amount of financial help these institutions will get from the Treasury Department.

The problem is that the whole economy needs to face a stress test. It is not altogether clear that even the people running a large part of this economy have any idea about the value of their own assets. This is scary!

We have heard over and over again in the past year that one factor that has “caused” or at least “exacerbated” the current crisis is accounting rules such as the “mark to market” requirement faced by many institutions. I think that this is nonsense!

The problem, to me, is that there has been too little information forthcoming from the businesses and financial institutions in this country. I contend that the only reason the “mark to market” requirement might have caused organizations any trouble is that the managements of these companies believed that they would never be held to live up to this standard.

The “mark to market” requirement is meant to warn managements that their decisions with respect to asset choices will have consequences on their balance sheets and this will be revealed to the investment community in real time. Therefore, Mr. Management, if you want to invest in riskier assets or mis-match the maturities of your assets and liabilities in order to increase your return on equity, you will have to account for them “up front” if your decisions sour.

Knowing this to be the case, why would these managements go ahead and assume riskier positions unless they believed that the accounting rules would not be enforced?

Another bad argument to me is the one used by Long Term Capital Management in terms of the portfolio positions they took…”We can’t release information on our positions because of the fact that if we did our competitors would know what we are doing and copy us.”

Well, guess what? Their competitors knew what positions they were taking and copied them. And, the spreads Long Term Capital Management worked with got narrower and narrower…and so LTCM needed to use more and more leverage to get the returns they were shooting for…and trouble developed…and who knew about it? Not their banks…not their investors…not the regulators…no one but them. And, we ended up with another crisis.

And, this goes back even further. I am reading a book about Goldman Sachs. One situation stands out…the financial crisis created by the Penn Central bankruptcy in the early 1970s. The Penn Central hid information about its financial problems from Goldman Sachs, as well as others in the financial community, which resulted in a collapse of the commercial paper market leading to a Federal Reserve rescue and millions and millions of dollars in losses as well as an enormous amount of time in law suits and other regulatory assessments.

In doing bank turnarounds I found out very quickly in each bank I was involved in that the first thing an organization does when their decisions start going south is that they attempt to “cover up” results. One of the first things needed in any turnaround situation is to open up the books and let the fresh air in. It always seemed to me that greater openness and transparency of reporting results would have reduced the number of bank problems and bank failures that took place in this country.

Many argue that if people knew the trouble that banks had gotten themselves into there would be more “runs” on banks and the system would be less stable. This is an argument “after the fact” much as is the argument about “marking to market.” If the information were available earlier to the public and the investment community, there would be pressure on managements to respond quicker to bad decisions and resolve them before they got out-of-hand. Allowing the managements to delay action on these issues only exacerbates the problem, for it does not force the managements to solve them.

If there are to be any regulatory changes…and I am afraid that there will be way too many of them in our future…I would argue that the most important one would be related to the reporting requirements of all businesses in the United States. The records of American businesses…non-financial as well as financial…need to be more timely and more open and transparent to the world.

The investment community and the regulatory community should never be in a position where there is such uncertainty about asset values as there is at this time! We have the computer systems to accommodate a requirement to be more open and transparent…there is no reason why more information should not be forthcoming on a real time basis.

The stock market…as well as other financial markets…will continue to move lower as long as the uncertainty exists about asset values. A government “recovery program,” a plan to ease the burden of foreclosures, and even a bank bailout plan, will not stimulate bank lending and move the economy out of recession until we get a handle on asset values…throughout the whole economy. Valuing assets will take time…and even more time will be required to work out the associated solvency issues. But, even now, greater openness and transparency would help speed this process along. And, maybe give investors enough confidence to start buying again

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