Set forth below are my predictions for 2009. Let’s hope that at least some of them come true.
Early in 2009, the banks start lending again
In January, the banks will realize that they cannot avoid lending forever. The Federal Reserve will financially punish any bank that refuses to lend by manipulating interest rates so that banks that hoard cash lose money. From the industry ashes a banking prophet will emerge who will preach the gospel of positive net interest spread through responsible lending.
The Obama Administration passes the largest fiscal stimulus program in the history of the United States
The fiscal stimulus plan will be bigger, better and more socially responsible than anything the Federal Government has ever done before. When the program starts to kick in James Carville will declare Obama has earned his place in history as “one of the greats” and will suggest he should be immediately added to Mt. Rushmore. Others will declare that the fiscal stimulus plan proves that Obama is a Marxist.
GDP falls in Q1, stabilizes in Q2, begins to rise in Q3 and is in full recovery by Q4
Despite most economists predicting Depression 2.0 and the “end of the world as we know it”, the economy will begin to recover in 2009. However, the day after inauguration, right wing talk show hosts will declare the beginning of the “Obama Depression”. When the economy starts to do better, the same right wing talk show hosts will proclaim that Bush was right when he said the economy was “basically sound” and will give Paulson credit for engineering the recovery.
Deflation fears give way to inflation fears
It turns out that the Federal Reserve wasn’t able to un-print money anymore than Eve could un-eat the apple. Economists will be relieved that they can predict Hyperinflation 1.0 and the “end of the world as we know it”.
Europe and Asia do worse than the U.S.
If you think it is bad here, just go over there. Jean-Claude Trichet will be exiled to the Island of Elba for starting his 2007 preemptive economic war on inflation. Tichet won the war but lost the economy. Liberal EU politicians will realize that exile is very “19th Century” and Elba is really kind of nice (good windsurfing, scuba and cute female Elbans). Trichet will escape but will be recaptured and made to work in the ECB audit department (after all regulatory audit work is worse than exile).
Hedge funds, funds of funds and other money management products are regulated and taxed.
Distraught former fund managers still won’t be able to accept that Madoff killed the golden goose. Soon, no one will be able to find an investor that actually admits to ever having put money in hedge funds; it will be as if the industry never existed. A rumor will spread that before the end of the Cold War hedge funds were invented by the Soviet Union to destroy America. Ann Coulter will say that Democrats invented the hedge fund industry to destroy the Bush legacy.
Obama makes enforcement of securities, banking and consumer protection laws a priority.
Wall Street bankers will burn Sarah Palin in effigy. After all, if she hadn’t blown the Katie Couric interview things could have been different. Aspiring white collar criminals will have to deal with prosecutors and regulators who actually try to do their job. 20 and 30 year old former investment bankers will be found in bars all around Tribeca trying to figure out what to do next. Graduate school will be out because they will all already have MBA’s and their parents will refuse to pay for more school. Some will get “real jobs” and hate it.
Stocks go up then down then up then down then up then down. But, major stock indexes end the year up.
Investors realize that market analysts don’t have a clue whether individual stocks will go up or down. But, liquidity created by the Federal Reserve, a slowly recovering economy and massive fiscal stimulus all conspire to push the Dow, S&P and NASDAQ up by year end.
Regional tensions rise and countries face internal strife because of the poor global economy. Most of the U.S. is an island of stability.
Sarah Palin does the ultimate maverick thing and declares that Alaska has seceded from the U.S. and will be its own independent nation. Palin becomes Vice President (even if it is only Vice President of Alaska) and Ted Stevens becomes President. Stevens hopes that by being President of Alaska he will be able to avoid going to jail. After watching Palin and Stevens, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich immediately declares Illinois’ independence. Around the same time, dissenters in China challenge the status quo (independence isn’t openly discussed because in China execution is the penalty for sedition). Economically motivated riots break out in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. Seeing weakness in the EU, Russia continues to expand its influence. The Middle East remains a problem. But, in a moment of historic unity and at a conference sponsored by CNN and Anderson Cooper, Arabs and Israelis agree that nothing has changed and the “world will continue as we know it”.
I have been an outspoken critic of too much leverage in the financial system for the past several years. On CNBC and Fox Business Network I have spoken out against the dangers of bank and brokerage over leverage and suggested that such over leverage could cause a repeat of the Great Depression. Like a giant oil slick, the financial services sector of the United States has been an inch deep and a mile wide for years. Clips of some of those interviews can be found at http://www.firstcapital.com/financial_news.html. Regulators don’t seem to care about management strategies that have driven the economy into the ditch and shareholders don’t seem worried about managers that lack both common sense and basic financial training.
The events of the last 12 months have seemed so unbelievable to me that I have started to wonder if there are ANY minimum standards of knowledge and training to be the CEO or CFO of a global United States based financial institution.
Many jobs in the United States have minimum educational and training standards. Doctors attend medical school and get licensed. Lawyers are trained in law school and take the Bar Examination. Even the people that take care of our pets, fix toilettes and build our houses have standards that they must meet before they can hold themselves out as experts.
But, what about the executives of large banks and brokerages? What are their minimum educational or competency standards and do they meet such standards?
It turns out that pretty much the answer is CEOs and CFOs do not pass any examination, are not licensed and have no minimum educational standard. Who is qualified to be a bank CEO or CFO has been pretty much left up to the Board of Directors of each institution.
With no “national standard” for bank and brokerage CEOs and CFOs I decided that I would create my own standards and benchmarks for measuring competence. So, this blog is about the standards that I think should apply to the leaders of global financial institutions and whether or not CEOs/CFOs meet such standards.
Education. I think that educational standards fly in the face of this country’s “Horatio Alger” ethic and are “elitist”. After all, Abe Lincoln only had about 1 year of formal education and was perhaps the greatest President of the United States (http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/education/glance.htm). Lincoln probably could have run a bank or brokerage (after all he ran a civil war). Vincent McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is able to run a large and successful corporation and he probably doesn’t have any formal educations (other than perhaps in pharmacology). If McMahon can run wresting he can run a bank. George Bush went to college (and graduate school) but pretends that he didn’t. President Bush runs a whole country!! And, Howard Hughes didn’t graduate from college even though he was pretty smart. I am certain Mr. Hughes could have been a banker in today’s environment.
And, since college isn’t required neither should knowledge of economics, finance, accounting or economic history. Nor will requirements include higher level math such as Algebra, calculus or statistics. CEO/CFO candidates shouldn’t be expected to master more than basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (with a calculator).
Work experience and/or apprenticeship requirements. Abe Lincoln didn’t have a lot of executive experience before being President, so neither should bank CEOs/CFOs. Hedge fund managers, i.e., the “Kings” of corporate finance, don’t need any prior experience (and many of them don’t have any). So why should a higher standard be imposed on CEOs/CFOs of global financial institutions?
Minimum reading and general knowledge and where to find it. There are some standards that I think should apply in terms of general knowledge and minimum reading material. However, given no real education, work experience or apprenticeship requirements, these standards need to be “reasonable”.
After rejecting the local public library as a source of reading material for high level financial executives (remember I want to have reasonable standards for our nation’s financial leaders and most books in the library have “big words”), I decided to go to Barnes and Noble. If it is important to know it is probably found in the extensive selection at Barnes and Noble.
In the business section of Barnes and Noble I found two business books that seem perfect. Neither book used big words or a required lot of math, and to understand them an advanced degree (like an Associate’s Degree from Palm Beach County Community College) wasn’t required.
The first book I chose, The Little Book of Value Investing is part of the “Little Book” series published by Wiley.
In the dust cover the publishers ask “Do you care about your money?” Well, bank and brokerage CEOs and CFOs are suppose to care about money. The publishers claim that that only an IQ of 125 is necessary to understand the book. In fact, The Little Book of Value Investing says that that any IQ greater than 125 is “wasted.” Well, an IQ requirement was a new concept but one that I decided is reasonable. But what “sealed the deal” for The Little Book was the fact that the publishers claim that the reader will “[learn] to put your money to work like a banker” (and since we are searching for proper standards of knowledge for bank CEOs and CFOs….). And, for readers that have trouble reading, there is an audio version of this book. Barnes and Noble features The Little Book of Value Investing on their web site at http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/results.asp?WRD=the+little+book+of+value+investing.
The second book, Value Investing for Dummies, is even more natural for money center bank CEOs/CFOs. Value Investing for Dummies claims to teach how to “detect hidden agendas in financial reports.”, “understand financial statements” and “assess a company’s value”. The book explains “fundamentals and intangibles”, has “tear-out cheat sheet(s)” and features “a dash of humor and fun”.
The Dummies series of books are well known reference books for discerning readers and learners. After all, the Dummies series has mastered such esoteric and difficult topics such as seasonal addictive disorders in their Seasonal Addictive Disorders for Dummies (a must read for all mental health professionals), the conundrum of the human genome in their groundbreaking Genetics for Dummies work (I understand it is required reading at most medical schools), the mystery of the 1980s personal computer in their newly revised DOS for Dummies (finally an easy to understand reference book for people with a computer phobia) and how to kill time while waiting in an airport in the seminal work Su Doku for Dummies (if only I had this on my last trip to Asia). The most authoritative list of Dummie books can be found on the Barnes and Noble web site at http://browse.barnesandnoble.com/browse/nav.asp?visgrp=nonfiction&n=1000005131&ne=1000005131&Ns=SERIES_NUMBER.
So, what about those minimum standards for the global financial leaders?
What should they know about leverage?
According to The Little Book of Value Investing quite a bit.
In the “Little Book” chapter titled “Sifting Out the Fool’s Gold” I learned
“The first and most toxic reason that [companies don’t do well] is too much debt. In good times, companies with decent cash flow may borrow large amount of money on the theory that if they continue to grow, they can meet the interest and principal payments in the future. Unfortunately, the future is unknowable, and companies with too much debt have a much smaller chance of surviving and economic downturn.”
The Little Book chapter titled “Give the Company a Physical” continues to teach and illuminate in terms that everyone can understand.
“Much as a doctor consults patients’ charts to see what condition they are in, look to the balance sheet to see what shape the company is in. The doctor needs to know all the vital signs to make a diagnosis. A balance sheet is effectively a company’s medical chart….”
Readers are told that they
“….want to make sure that the company is not overly burdened with debt, and that there is enough capital to stay in business during bad times.”
Leverage trends are identified as important in the Little Book when it continues to state
“…it is useful to observe trends over the past few years. Are liabilities growing faster than assets? This could be an indication that the company has to borrow more and more money just to stay afloat…”
However, Mr. Browne (the author of the Little Book) appears to be a purest (which is perhaps a controversial position) when he states that he
“…prefer(s) to subtract intangible assets from [equity]” when calculating the amount of debt to equity because equity less intangibles gives him “…a better picture of how much actual equity there is in a company that could potentially be realized if needed.”
The Little Book of Value Investing continues to warn
“In general a high debt-to-equity ratio means that a company has been financing its growth by borrowing. Leveraging the company by increasing debt levels is a double-edged sword….there is a real danger of default and bankruptcy down the road. The less debt on the balance sheet, the grater the margin of safety.”
In conclusion the Little Book points out
“A strong balance sheet is a good indicator of a company’s stamina, its ability to survive when the going gets tough.”
Value Investing for Dummies has similar lessons for CEOs/CFOs when in “Fundamentals for Fundamentalists” it asks and answers the “age old” question of “How much [debt] is too much?”
“[The] excessive use of debt signals potential danger if things don’t turn out the way a company expects them to. Leverage is a good thing when things are going a company’s way. Debt financing can be used to produce more ….profit and, in the end, a bigger business….But as everyone knows, this can work the other way….Industry standards and common sense apply to debt-to equity ratios.?”
Later in Value Investing for Dummies the reader is again warned that
“Financial leverage can be a good thing – to a point, and as long as things are going well.”
So, how do the CEOs/CFOs some leading banks and brokerage firms stand up the standard of knowing and applying the information found in The Little Book of Value Investing and Value Investing for Dummies?
Let’s start with the management team from Bear Stearns. As it turns out, when it failed Bear Stearns had the highest debt levels of any of the major brokerage firms. At 33.53 to 1 at the end of 2007 Bear Stearns was massively overleveraged and apparently didn’t understand that with so much debt “there [was] a real danger of default and bankruptcy down the road.” (from The Little book of Value Investing). And the trends for the past 5 years of leverage were bad. Management didn’t realize that they were increasing the risk of a failure and up until the very end had little idea of the trouble that they were in. Moreover, common sense would suggest that when the company was “burning down” playing tournament bridge probably wasn’t the best crises management strategy. Clearly, the management team at Bear Stearns needed to spend some time at Barnes and Noble honing their skills and as a result failed the competency test (not a big surprise).
The Lehman Brothers team in place during 2007 also failed the competency test. With leverage at approximately 30.70 to 1 (and having added material amounts of additional leverage during 2005, 2006 and 2007) they only seem to have a marginally better understanding about risk and leverage than the Bear Stearns team (maybe that is why Lehman Brothers almost failed like Bear Stearns). However, Lehman’s new CFO Erin Callan seems to pass the competency test. Since she took over as CFO the firm has been reducing its debt burden while at the same time increasing its equity and improving its “Net Leverage” ratio by almost 25%. By the way, Erin understands that when calculating Net Leverage she is supposed to deduct goodwill and other intangibles from equity as suggested by The Little Book. Erin appears to be the star of the Lehman Brothers executive suit.
At Citigoup the team headed up by Chuck Prince clearly didn’t know what was in either the Dummie or the Little Book series and were appropriately terminated. However, the new team lead by Vikram Pandit seems to have the “right stuff.” He is raising capital and reducing debt as fast as humanly possible. I guess his team has been hanging out at the Starbuck’s in his neighborhood Barnes and Noble.
What about First Capital? First Capital operates at a Net Leverage Ratio of about 3 to 1 (which is about 1/10th of Lehman Brothers’ ratio after Ms. Callan began to perform her magic and 1/15th of Citigroup’s Net Leverage Ratio at December 31, 2007). We didn’t increase our leverage over the last 5 years and are careful to manage both debt and equity to maintain what is considered to be a “fortress” balance sheet. I guess we pass the leverage competence test.
In future blogs I will discuss additional CEO/CFO competency tests using criteria found in The Little Book of Value Investing and Value Investing for Dummies. I am confident that First Capital will continue to pass the test but less confident about others.