Monday, September 29, 2008

Expect Unintended Consequences From This Weekend

I am writing this on the weekend that various members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs (working with, and/or against, members of the outgoing administration) prepare a bill that would mandate the use of taxpayer funds to rescue our economy, and to a large extent the global economy from various governments’ past mistakes. The noisy minority of the public is clamoring for the scalps of the perpetrators. While Congress, for the most part, gives lip service to the crowd around the guillotine, they don’t want the blame game to gain momentum.

The truth is one of the biggest contributors to our current market-clogging problem is the government. This guilt does not stem from government’s malevolence to those who are trying to earn capital. The mistake made by these good people is that they did not fully contemplate the laws of unintended consequences.

The difference is that the government has so much power, few can be heard questioning its wisdom. History has shown however, that leaving economic issues for the most part to the private sector, produces fewer mistakes. These mistakes are often then corrected through the brutal, competitive system.

“Good” efforts by government powers has often led to bad results for our society. Some examples are:

Support for first time home buyers
Result: Questionable qualifications for social purposes.

The repeal of two sections of the Glass-Steagall Act
Result: The recombination of two very different cultures, compensation approaches and regulatory setups for clients.

Trading in pennies
Result: Much less expensive for large traders to take advantage of retail customers who have left the daily market.

The practical destruction of the specialist system
Result: Specialists are needed to support two-way markets during periods of stress.

Fair Value Pricing
Result: Only individuals can now buy without an immediate write down in declining markets.

Restricting Short Sales
Result: A curtailment of early identification of trouble and future required buyers

Whatever comes out of this weekend’s negotiations, if anything, will create its own mischief. These new constraints on the market place functioning is a further devaluation of the old trading (tactile) manuals on how to survive and profit from other people’s transactions.

There are at least two, somewhat related events that encourage optimism. First is Warren Buffet’s purchases of stock in Goldman Sachs on very favorable terms not available to others. In addition, his lock, stock and barrel purchase of Chesapeake Energy at a very depressed price due to rumors as to its solvency, is positive. (Point of disclosure- our hedge fund and I, personally have been long time holders of Berkshire Hathaway stock.)

The second event of note is that the stock prices of Financials, beaten-down as a group during the turmoil in September, continue to trade above their July or earlier lows.

Long-term strategic buyers should use this period to slowly begin additional buy programs and to be prepared that the lack of historic trading practices may give the investor even more favorable prices, interspersed with extremely sharp price spikes as the natural sellers into a rally are reduced in number.

> Sunday Morning Post Script (1)
5:30 am – Reactions to the announcement of the Agreement in Principle on what the press insists on calling “The Bailout Plan”
1. Making a dangerous assumption that the announcement is accurate, my first reaction was the plan would be viewed as highly inflationary.
2. My second reaction is that no matter who heads the next administration and more importantly the make up of the U.S. Senate, we are looking at higher taxes at the Federal level and for many states as well.

>Sunday Morning Post Script (2):
10:30 am - My reactions after some sleep and a brief look at the “talking heads” on cable.
1. Until we see the actual details of the law and the regulations, we do not know the size of the problem; thus we are reacting to shadows without knowing how far the silhouette is from the candle.
2. The plan recognizes the major issue is not credit which is weak in many places, but liquidity which is almost non-existent. The “brilliance” of the plan is that it is creating a low quality Treasury window. For some, the mere existence of this window may mean that private liquidity will come back - knowing that if necessary the questionable assets can be sold to the Treasury.
3. Wall Street/Bank equity owners do not benefit from this liquidity plan directly, the main beneficiaries will be those seeking credit which are beyond the financial community.
4. Congress is lousy at communicating to the public and this increases the likelihood of a more powerful than usual “law of unintended consequences”.
5. In some ways because of point 4, we are lucky that the plan did not address Paulson’s pleas for a clearinghouse for derivatives, which is a larger problem.
6. I expect a significant relief rally for stock prices because the absence of new short sellers and the destruction of the NYSE specialist system.
7. New tactical trading plays will evolve quickly, while longer term strategies will evolve more slowly. The need for liquidity reserves will grow.

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