Jason Zweig has an interesting column today in the WSJ:
Inquiring minds want to know: What would Graham do?
This column, named after Benjamin Graham’s classic book on value investing, launched only two weeks ago — and several readers have already asked whether Graham would be loading up on financial stocks now. Unfortunately, I can’t ask the great investor directly. Graham died in 1976. But a close look at his writings suggests that the answer is unambiguous: No.
That may seem surprising. After all, by mid-July, the Dow Jones Wilshire Financials index was down 46% from one year earlier. It’s such big red numbers that get value investors licking their chops.
Even after rising over 30% in the past week, the 1,001 financial stocks tracked by Dow Jones Indexes are trading at an average of just 1.1 times their book value (assets minus liabilities). Before bank stocks climbed part way out of the crypt, you could buy Wachovia Corp. for 51% of reported book value. If that isn’t Ben Graham territory, what is?
To see why I think Graham would sit on his hands, you need to understand his crucial distinction between investment and speculation. "An investment operation," he wrote in his first book, Security Analysis, "is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative."
Trained as a mathematician and Greek and Latin scholar, Graham crafted his definition with the stark rigor of a Euclidean theorem. He wanted no weaseling about what he meant. All three, not just one or two, conditions have to be met: Your analysis must be thorough, your principal stay safe and your expectations be reasonable. "Thorough analysis" demands "the study of the facts in the light of established standards of safety and value," while "safety of principal" means "protection against loss under all normal or reasonably likely conditions or variations."
You cannot even pretend to be protected against loss while real estate prices — the wobbly foundation for most financial stocks — are still crumbling.
Nor can you study the facts when it’s unclear what the facts are. Each quarter, the banks set money aside in reserve against losses on their loan portfolios and say they believe those reserves should be adequate. The next quarter, they find out they were wrong. Loan-loss provisions at Washington Mutual, for example, have mushroomed from $967 million to $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion to $5.9 billion over the past four quarters.
The timely Graham admonition that "You must never delude yourself into thinking that you’re investing when you’re speculating" is a reminder that no one really knows when the real estate crisis ends, or what the true situation of the financials firms balance sheets really are like.
As Zweig states, "For many banks, the nightmare has only begun."
Is It Time to Tiptoe Into Financial Stocks?
The Stocks May Look Cheap, But Bank on it: These Are Treacherous Waters.
WSJ, July 26, 2008
Free version at Yahoo
Financials Are Still Reeling
Even Firms That Avoided Worst of the Credit Crunch Face Threat From Slowdown
Antony Currie and Robert Cyran
WSJ, July 26, 2008; Page B18
William Poole, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St.
Louis, talks about Standard & Poor’s proposed downgrade of Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac bonds, June’s durable goods and new homes data
released today, and the outlook for legislation to aid the hobbled
00:00 Possible S&P action on Freddie, Fannie bonds
01:00 Economic indicators of durable goods report
02:28 Housing bill; Fannie, Freddie lobbying
04:15 Need for Fannie, Freddie to be private firms
05:11 Access to Fed discount window; oil prices
06:54 "Balancing act" of Fed on inflation, economy
07:52 Lobbying restrictions; credit rating position
09:44 Market consequence of Fannie, Freddie fall
11:09 Paulson "back-stop" plan "essential"
Running time 12:11
Bloomberg, July 25 2008
Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch (Oct. 23, 1960 – July 25, 2008) gave his last lecture at the university Sept. 18, 2007, before a packed McConomy Auditorium. In his moving presentation, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," Pausch talked about his lessons learned and gave advice to students on how to achieve their own career and personal goals.
Randy finally lost his battle to cancer early Friday morning . . .
For more, visit www.cmu.edu/randyslecture.
Randy Pausch, Final Lecture
Randy Pausch Reflects
Long time readers are familiar with my fascination with antique sports cars. One of my pals, Jan, is a well known Porsche collector who is also affiliated with the International Automotive Appraisers Association (IAAA). Its a hobby for him, and he specializes in the rehabilitation and appraisal of antique sports cars. He has rebuilt and appraised everything from celebrity Bugattis to classic Ferraris to modern supercars.
I call Jan "landed gentry" — he’s owned a major car rental firm (sold it), develops real estate, buys/sells land and houses. He is quasi-retired, leaving him plenty of time to play with his many fine automobiles — and for us to discuss the housing market collapse.
Amongst our many discussions, we have gone over the issue of housing appraisal fraud. So when the IAAA newsletter sent out the tale (below) to its members as a warning against fraud, conflict of interest, and corruption, it got his attention — and he forwarded it to me. His comments were: "This is even worse than the nightmare of corruption you described."
Let me hasten to add that many appraisers were offended by the corruption of colleagues in their industry, especially those greased by the worst elements among mortgage brokers and real estate agents. In 2005, more than 8,000 appraisers — roughly 10 percent of the industry — signed a petition asking the federal government to take action; the White House and Federal agencies demurred, and appraisal fraud continued unabated. Eventually, Phony and Fraudy cut a deal with NYS AG Cuomo to stop enabling the appraisal fraud.
Which brings us to the now defunct Indy Mac, and the below diatribe about the criminality, corruption, and rampant appraisal fraud that was the CountryWide spinoff’s stock in trade.
Martin was the chief commercial appraiser for Indy Mac from October 15, 2001, to when he was terminated six months later for failing to look the other way or actively engage in fraud. Most of the details below are culled from the public record of his wrongful termination litigation, which was eventually settled in Martin’s favor.
My quick overview of the conflicts, fraud, and criminality at Indy Mac —
• Underwriting loans based on appraised values well above purchase prices;
• Fabricating rent rolls for commercial properties to be appraised;
• Over-stating Construction work as 80% complete versus 15% in actuality;
• Attempting to change discounted cash flow models for subdivisions in order to increase appraised value;
• Attempted intimidation of Appraisers;
• Providing false information to appraisers;
Conflict of interests:
• Appraising a development where the land was being purchasing from David Loeb, IndyMac’s Chairman of the Board;
• On one transaction, the CEO’s father and father-in-law were
commercial construction inspectors for the firm; the loan officer was
the CEO’s brother (a former police officer with no loan experience);
That’s just the overview.
Amazingly, these events took place before the enormous Housing and Construction boom from 2003-06. One is left to imagine just how insane the place must have been during that period. I’d love to find the details, and given the enormous lending losses — $8B and counting — we can only begin to imagine what sort of rampant fraud took place. I hope the FDIC releases a full report of their investigation of the collapse of Indy Mac. (Gee, I wonder how Senator Schumer caused THOSE problems back in 2001? CNBC should know better than to publish trash such as this.)
You really need to read the entire piece to get a feel as to just how much of a criminal enterprise Indy Mac was before it went under.Is it any surprise the entire firm, and not just any individuals, are under FBI investigation for Fraud?
These things have a tendency to disappear, so I am capturing a PDF and the text (after the jump) in case it somehow vanishes.
Idiots Fiddle While Rome Burns (July 2008)
My experience at IndyMac
Vernon Martin, Certified General Appraiser
Appraiser’s Forum, 07-14-2008, 12:41 AM
Appraisal fraud: your home at risk
Appraisers say they’re being pressured by lenders to inflate their estimates of home values
CNN/Money June 2, 2005: 9:56 AM EDT
Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac agree to new appraisal standards
L.A. Times, March 04, 2008
My experience at IndyMac- General Real Estate, Mortgage, and Economic Discussions – Appraisers Forum PDF Download my_experience_at_indymac.pdf
IndyMac fraud probe launched; FBI looking into firm, not individuals
Lara Jakes Jordan, The Associated Press 07/16/2008 09:08:13 PM PDT