Here’s the full stack from the Barron’s Round Table. It’s a great read to start the year. The first part focus on the economy and the second part are the picks. This is a long read, so have a good weekend. Enjoy!
I got around Ken Follett’s latest 1,000 page brick: A Column of Fire. If you are looking for a good for book for the Holidays or a gift, this book will fit the bill. Like any of Ken Follett’s work, this book historically well researched.
The story starts in the late 1550s with Europe torn apart by religious conflict. This was a time when the Catholics burnt the Protestants and then the Protestants burnt the Catholics on the stake. The real enemies, then as now, are not the rival religions. The true battle pitches those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else—no matter what the cost.
Here’s a praised for the book: As Europe erupts, can one young spy protect his queen? International bestselling author Ken Follett takes us deep into the treacherous world of powerful monarchs, intrigue, murder, and treason with his magnificent new epic, A Column of Fire. – Amazon
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was a bubble formed from the prospect of trading with faraway lands. The Dutch government granted VOC a monopoly on trade. VOC could acquire exotic goods, establish colonies, create military forces, and even initiate wars or conflicts around the world. Of course, the very nature of these risky ventures made getting any accurate indication of intrinsic value nearly impossible, which meant there were no real benchmarks for what companies like this should be worth.
The VOC also got caught up in the Tulip Mania (The bitcoin of the 1630s.) Despite its 200-year run as Europe’s foremost trading juggernaut – the speculative peak of the company’s prospects coincided with Tulip Mania in Holland in 1637. It’s during that time that the company was worth $7.9 trillion. Eventually the company was nationalized in 1800, and its possessions and debt were taken over by the government.
*None of what you are about to read is investment advice of any kind. You shouldn’t buy any cryptocurrency without deep personal research and consideration. Again, this is not investment recommendations.
Euphoria: is an affective state in which a person experiences pleasure or excitement and intense feelings of well-being and happiness.
Economic Bubble: When the prices of securities or other assets rise so sharply and at such a sustained rate that they exceed valuations justified by fundamentals, making a sudden collapse likely (at which point the bubble “bursts”).
My last Bitcoin/blockchain post (Bitcoin Mania) has received a lot of attention. I talked about the forces that are fueling Bitcoins to record level. For many Bitcoin seems the easy path to riches. This is a pure sign of a bubble. However a bubble doesn’t pop just because you spotted one. You need a catalyst that will trigger the crash. Before we get to that I want to mention a few examples of pure irrational behavior related to Bitcoins, just to get a sense of how absurd the market can be. You can replace the word Bitcoin with dotcom bubble, 2007 real estate bubble, or the 1634 Tulip bubble if you are old enough. The overvalued asset might be different but the composition of the bubble is the same.
At the moment, there’s only one way you can make money with Bitcoins; you need somebody to buy it at a higher price than you (Greater Fool Theory). I buy an overvalued asset with the anticipation of selling it to other speculators (the greater fools) at a much higher price. Basically you need somebody more stupid than you.
Pole dancing instructor Dee Heath is riding the surge with her fitness business in western Sydney. She has spent $5,800 on Bitcoin since July and has more than tripled her investment.
“Look, I love pole dancing but lately my passion has definitely been Bitcoin,” she told SBS News.
She is now dedicating her time informing would-be Bitcoin investors about navigating the world of cryptocurrencies […]
“The good thing is when it goes down, you can buy some more, and you know it’s going to go up at some point.”
The message is Bitcoins = Path to Riches. If an Australian pole dancer is making it rain, you can too! Nobody wants to be the poor pole dancer. Expect more pole dancers to get to fuel this bubble before less. In behavior finance this phenomenon is called herding. We mimic the behavior of our surrounding to feel better and to fit in. It makes us feel more secure because everybody else is doing it. In the movie The Big Short, Steve Carrels figures out there’s a bubble in the housing market after interviewing a stripper in Florida. It turns out all her strippers friends are on it too (Youtube NSFW):
In finance portfolio managers have very similar investments because they are compensated on their performance relative to peers. You don’t want to explain to your investors every three months why hot trendy stock ABC is not in your portfolio like everybody else.
While I’m on the topic of strippers, there’s now the world’s first Bitcoin strip club, The Legends Room in Las Vegas. According to the website The Legends Room is a world class Las Vegas gentlemen’s cabaret re-imagined using blockchain technology. The “club” has its own virtual currency and feature Bitcoin ATMs within the club. Instead of pulling out cash, you’re literally buying digital coins. You put money into the “ATM,” hold up your phone, and the machine sends bitcoins directly to your mobile device. Now there’s an army of adult entertainers getting a degree in cryptocurrency.
Here’s another example that brings back memories of the dotcom bubble when any old company could slap .com on the end of their name and see their stock levitate.
Failed biotech Bioptix Inc recently changed its name to Riot Blockchain Inc. (RIOT). Below is the stock chart since the change:
RIOT is not alone. Other companies have shown that a foray into the cryptocurrency space is often rewarded by investors, at least initially, as the astronomical increase in the value of virtual coins has lured everyone from big banks to startups. This trend will also get worse before it gets better.
There are strange stories too such as this one: Rare Pepe Blockchain Cards Have Produced More Value Than Most ICOs. I’m still trying to wrap by head around this. Rare Pepe is based on an internet meme called Pepe The Frog that has been around since 2005 and became popular during the 2016 election. Over the course of 2017, there have been a lot of blockchain projects, and the Initial Coin Offering (ICO) craze has been off the charts. Most ICOs are pump and dump scheme, but this Rare Pepe one is successful for now. Rarepepes are digital trading cards.
These are some of the few examples I came across since researching the crypto space.
Like I previously explained, my guess is that Bitcoins is most likely to go up before it pops. There will be more people like the Australian pole dancer getting involve before they are less. Easy money is addictive and contagious. This will get bigger before it gets smaller. Everybody is talking about Bitcoins but only a minority has managed to dip their toe in the action. It will eventually get main stream. The fear of missing out will drive people to get involved. Eventually the government will have to step in and that’s when the party is over. It will be particularly damaging when it burst because there were no assets underpinning its price.
The dividend cut that has been expected finally happened. General Electric announced it is cutting its dividend in half, a move that could cause many long-time shareholders in the 125-year-old conglomerate to flee but also free up much-needed capital to fund a turnaround for the one-time American bellwether. CEO John Flannery says the decision was difficult but necessary in light of the company’s efforts to find the best ways to use its cash. GE has paid a dividend since 1899 and has only cut it twice: in 1939 and in 2009. Obviously the market didn’t react well. How ugly has the recent dive in General Electric’s stock price been? Richard Peterson, principal analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, notes that since the Nov. 8, 2016 election, GE has lost over $100 billion in market capitalization based on today’s prices at mid-day. That exceeds the total current market capitalizations of FedEx Corp., Moody’s Corporation, and BorgWarner, Inc. combined.
Among other expected changes to the company are:
A focus on three of the company’s prime business lines — aviation, power and health care. GE said it is looking to exit more than $20 billion of assets.
While it slashed its dividend in half, the company also set a $3 billion share buyback priority.
Addressing its pension plan shortfalls, Flannery said the company will borrow $6 billion to take advantage of the current rate environment.
The board of directors will be reduced from 18 to 12, with three new members slated “with relevant industry experience.” Directors will have 15-year term limits.
Employee bonuses also will be restructured, with elimination of the three-year cash long-term performance awards and a switch to a program that conforms to “market norms.”
Slice 25% of staff from its home office
There hasn’t been a word on GE’s stake in oil and gas operator Baker Hughes (BHI), which became a separate publicly traded company in July after it merged with GE’s oil and gas operations.
So what happened?
Since the financial crisis GE has shrunk but not its dividend. In the last five years, the industrial cash flow of GE has not covered the dividend. That was fine previously when you had GE Capital there to pay its fair share. But with GE Capital gone, there’s just no way to pay the dividend. The payout was unsustainable. Before the cut, the market drove GE’s yield all the way to 4.7%, the 2nd highest in the Dow after Verizon (5.3%). The new dividend yield will be 2.3 percent. Below is a chart of the companies with the biggest cash dividend payout:
GE’s free cash flow, or the level of cash flow less capital expenditures, had contracted to about $7 billion, about half its normal level. GE and the Street were expecting $14 billion for year. Its dividend cost $8 billion. The 50% dividend slash is expected to generate $4 billion in cash annually.
The issues have probably been lingering for a while and have recently been reflected in the share price. GE even raised its dividend last year, that’s how confident they were. GE’s performance and its returns have been bad. But without this unpopular difficult decision they would have been worse in the future. Of course they are no guarantee that the turnaround will be successful. In a way I feel this company has been restructuring even since Jack Welch has left. The shareholder pain has been real for many years. Two years ago GE was talking about reaching $2 in EPS. Now GE said it now sees adjusted earnings for the year ahead of between $1 per share and $1.07 per share. You should also expect $6b-$7b in free cash flow.
GE will be smaller, simpler, and more focus. If things work out, this should drive stronger growth and create more value for shareowners.
GE had the reputation of a must own stock. It was a classic blue chip. You couldn’t go wrong with GE in your portfolio. Although its performance has been lagging for years now, it was still considered a classic blue chip. It was just a matter of time before the giant industrial came back. A lot of retires were dependent GE’s dividend. The dividend was religious. You couldn’t touch it because it would kill your shareholder base.
The lessons here is that you can’t be dependent on one company. Even if the company is a blue chip and has been paying dividends for over 100 years, it’s very important to have a portfolio of high quality assets.
*None of what you are about to read is investment advice of any kind. You shouldn’t buy any cryptocurrency without deep personal research and consideration. Again, this is not investment recommendations.
This is my second post on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. I wrote this one, Good Blockchain Primer, back in July.
For someone who has lived through the dotcom bubble the madness currently unfolding in the crypto space is just plain breathtaking. It is quite awe inspiring to see people make the exact same mistakes they made 17 years ago. Of course, today’s investors are likely different people who, for the most part, have not lived through the dotcom bubble. A lot of people who never bought own an investment are fueling this. They also have no experience whatsoever with losing money in investments. And we know that people are risk averse. That means people are more sensitive to losing money than they are to gains.
Back in 1999 and 2000 the stock market went crazy about anything related to the internet. Everyone was taking part — institutions, high net worth investors and your local retail guy who worked at Walmart or drove a cab. As a matter of fact cab drivers handed out tips of the next hot IPO to their riders. Most IPOs only needed a business idea that was vaguely related to the internet to achieve success.
Bitcoin is really about freedom. Bitcoin is the battle of ideas. It forces the issue of whether people should be as free in their handling of money as they are in their handling of speech or religion. I’ve been following the Bitcoin story from a distance for a couple years. My attitude on Bitcoin has shifted over time. At first I dismissed it. I didn’t see the value in it. Like so many other people, I laughed at it. I ignored it. I never thought it had a chance. But it survived. It thrived. It exploded. Many people like to ignore the irrefutable fact that Bitcoin is still here. The more I read on the subject of Bitcoin and the blockchain the more I realize how it’s a beautiful idea. But it still doesn’t change the fact that you can lose money if you buy cryptocurrencies or Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs).
At this stage Bitcoin’s nature is still very speculative. What’s very interesting is the technology behind the bitcoin, the blockchain. The blockchain technology is more than an evolution. It’s a way of permanently recording and sharing data and transactions without any central authority. The blockchain is a massive open decentralized digital ledger. It is more reliable and secure than a regular centralized ledger. It cuts the middleman out (brokers, bankers, exchanges etc…). Blockchains can be used to verify records, prove rights, store identities, and digitally certify almost anything including physical and non-physical assets. And again, you don’t need banks, governments, policy makers, or companies in the middle. I don’t know what is going to happen to Bitcoin but the blockchain is here to stay. It’s already being tested in different industries like finance. Major U.S. banks like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs just completed a test managed by blockchain startup Axoni to kept track of the swaps contracts after they were executed, recording things like amendments or termination of the deals, stock splits and dividends, and achieved a “100 percent success rate,” Axoni said in a statement.
Even though my opinion on Bitcoin has shifted (progress?) over time, I still don’t think it’s the Holy Grail. I don’t know what is going to happen to Bitcoin but all the innovation and growth that it spurs is here to stay. Bitcoin is the tip of the ice berg. The blockchain is everything under it. Bitcoin also reminds me of Netscape. Of course the Netscape story didn’t end well but what is undeniable is what Netscape did for the progress of the Internet. Or think what Napster did for music. Naspter is not around anymore but its contribution to the way we listen today is undeniable.
Buying Bitcoins as an Investment Trade?
Buying Bitcoins is not an investment. It’s a gamble. To me it’s like going to the casino and betting on red, except I don’t like going to the casino. Can’t remember last time I did. I find it very stupid and I guess this is not very different. Except buying bitcoins is more fun than betting on red at the casino. If you are going to get involved in this, use your play money (money you can lose, don’t bet the farm).
A lot of respected people and people that I follow have strong opinions on the topic. Some see the genius in Bitcoins and blockchains and other think its absolute farce and that one day a lot of people will get hurt once the bubble pops. There are elements of truth on both sides; Bitcoins intellectually makes sense but speculating on price can fire-back on you big time.
Jamie Dimon from JPMorgan famously thrashed Bitcoins. Here’s a few things he said:
At the same time, Mr. Dimon is betting big on the technology behind ‘fraud’ bitcoin by launching a blockchain-based system with two other banks to reduce global payment transaction speeds “from weeks to hours.” He’s also quoted saying:
“The blockchain is a technology which is a good technology. We actually use it. It will be useful in a lot of different things,” he said. “God bless the blockchain.”
Today, despite his views, it was reported that JPMorgan reportedly getting into bitcoin futures trading.
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is more neutral on Bitcoin:
Still thinking about #Bitcoin. No conclusion – not endorsing/rejecting. Know that folks also were skeptical when paper money displaced gold.
The oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, said in 2014:
“Stay away from it. It’s a mirage basically. It’s a method of transmitting money. It’s a very effective way of transmitting money and you can do it anonymously and all that. A check is a way of transmitting money too. Are checks worth a whole lot of money? Just because they can transmit money?” I hope bitcoin becomes a better way to do it. But you can replicate it a bunch of different ways. The idea that it [bitcoin] has some huge intrinsic value is just a joke in my view.”
What is fueling this bitcoin mania? Right now there are two major forces: Driven by greed and fear. These driving forces that are not going away anytime soon:
Greed is here to stay. Sometimes the cause for higher prices is higher prices.
Speculation is not going away. The idea of earning easy money really quickly is contagious. It can also mess with your mind. A parent recently told me that his teenage kid made $800 “investing” in a week betting on cryptocurrencies. Making easy money doing nothing can really screw up a person, especially at this early stage. Now how do you get the kid to get a minimum wage summer job?
The fear of missing out on future gains is a real pressure.
Low interest rates. Do I need to point out how much money you are getting at the bank or on your bonds?
Hardcore believers in the Bitcoin currency are not going away. This is is very faith based investment (like goldbug investors). A lot of people don’t believe in government issued currency. There is also a deep mistrust of the banking system. The scars of the Financial Crisis are still fresh.
Remittance payments are not going away. Bitcoin is about creating a world where transactions can move globally for free. It’s about freedom.
For money laundering, bitcoin is a gem.
Bitcoin as a mean to store value. Or a hedge against the non-utility and failure of currencies. Look at Venezuela or Zimbabwe’s currency. Or India when the government woke up one morning and said your money is gone with demonetization.
Oppressing regimes, capital control, government confiscating money is still a thing. Bitcoins if properly can’t be confiscated and that has tremendous value for a lot of people around the world. If you are running away from an oppressive regime, Bitcoin is also easier to transfer across borders than gold or suitcases full of cash.
The adoption of Bitcoins as an asset class over time will growth as more people learn about it (going mainstream).
The big money is only starting to pay attention.
Because Bitcoin is still new, it’s in a state of flux everywhere. One force that could squash bitcoin is the government. The government is the big cloud over this. Government could wake up and squash this, like China did with ICOs. Or it could put conditions in place for its adoption and growth, like Japan. But world governments are playing catch up here. They are still trying to figure out what it is still all about. We all are in a sense. How do you regulate cryptocurrencies without stifling its innovation and growth? The one thing governments are really after is money laundering which contributes to the facilitation of all kind of horrific crime like drug trafficking and terrorism. The government is caught between allowing money laundering one hand and permitting innovation in the other. My opinion is that something as powerful as Bitcoin to escape regulations entirely is naïve. I can’t imagine Bitcoin going mainstream without some kind of regulator weighting on it. The likeliest scenario is that the two elephants in the room (US, EU) issue some sort of regulatory framework for ICOs and cryptoassets in general. Don’t you go to prison if you trade securities that are not properly following regulation? The crypto place is filled with some undesirable characters. There are a lot of poseurs and scammers too. There are a lot of conflicts of interest, self-serving hype, and obfuscation. Because it’s the wild wild west, are regulations going to bring a bigger sense of confidence to Bitcoins?
It’s really easy to dismiss Bitcoin as a fad, or Ponzi scheme. It’s not backed by gold. You don’t have equity or any ownership rights like a stock. It’s not supported by the full faith of the government. You cannot put your hands on it. It’s just 0s and 1s to the naked eye. It’s complicated. It was something born out of geeks, computer scientists, and gamer. There is no cash flow. No dividends. No annual report or earning calls. It’s not even useful as jewelry like gold. How can you take this idea seriously? Etc…On the other hand, you have a world with Wall-Street, governments like Washington and North Korea, central banks…so who do you trust?
Where is this Bitcoin story going? I have no clue. It’s like trying to predict where the Internet would be like back in 1994. My suggestion is go ahead and learn about it. Buy a little bit with play money, not the farm. Why? Because it’s fun. By having skin in the game you will learn a lot more. You don’t have to buy a whole bitcoin. You can be part of this very interesting story. Maybe you will make a little bit of money but be aware that you might lose it. Again this is not an investment advice. You can buy fractions of bitcoins. You can buy $10 worth of bitcoins. Also be aware that you won’t get rich with it. The fortunes have already been made with the early adopters. The only way to make money with Bitcoin is to have somebody else buy it at a more expensive price than you bought it at.
Again let me repeat: None of what you are about to read is investment advice of any kind. You shouldn’t buy any cryptocurrency without deep personal research and consideration. Again, this is not investment recommendations.
If you want to learn more here are some interesting links:
Like I said in the past, I can’t recommend William Thorndike’s The Outsiders enough (More on the Outsiders). It’s one of the best book to have come out on investing in the last couple years. It’s about 8 CEOs that that had extraordinary returns over the long run. Except for Buffett, most people probably never heard of the 7 other CEO mentioned in the book. Here’s a potential blueprint for their success:
From the Preface:
They seemed to operate in a parallel universe, one defined by devotion to a shared set of principles, a worldview, which gave them citizenship in a tiny intellectual village. Call it Singletonville, a very select group of men and women who understood, among other things, that:
Capital allocation is a CEO’s most important job.
What counts in the long run is the increase in per share value, not overall growth or size.
Cash flow, not reported earnings, is what determines longterm value.
Decentralized organizations release entrepreneurial energy and keep both costs and “rancor” down.
Independent thinking is essential to long-term success, and interactions with outside advisers (Wall Street, the press, etc.) can be distracting and time-consuming.
Sometimes the best investment opportunity is your own stock.
With acquisitions, patience is a virtue . . . as is occasional boldness.
The title of the article ask a question that has been asked frequently in the value investing circle. Berkshire or Fairfax? In the 80s and 90s the question would have been more interesting. For the last 10 years Fairfax had its up and down. The last five years have clearly been a disappointement. But lately Fairfax’s Prem Watsa seemed to have refocus and has changed direction since Trump got elected. Fairfax’s has repeatedly been labeled the Warren Buffett of the North. As for the future, Fairfax is much smaller than Berkshire. BRK is dealing with a too big issue. It’s sitting on a growing $100 billion. There are not many targets.
Like I said the article is asking a fun question. However I find the article a little short and lacking substance. But it’s still interesting.
Repost from The Globe and Mail
By George Athanassakos
Here’s an intriguing question for value investors: If you had to choose between the two, which stock would you pick – Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. or Berkshire Hathaway Inc.?
Both companies are in the insurance industry, led by legendary value investors Prem Watsa and Warren Buffett, respectively. They are both capable insurance underwriters who have wisely invested their float (that is, the difference between premiums collected and claims paid) over the years of operation, thus profiting from both sides of their balance sheet and earning unparalleled returns for their shareholders. But this is the past; the question is, going forward, which one makes a better long-term investment?
Both companies subscribe to the value-investing philosophy of making investment decisions following a three-step process. First, they search for stocks with desirable characteristics; second, they value such stocks to determine their intrinsic value; and third, they make an investment decision to buy only if a stock meets the desired margin-of-safety requirement. However, while both companies follow similar steps in stock selection, they differ in what they view as desirable stocks – the first step of the process – deserving to be considered for the second step.