So, as has been suggested here by some over the years, I just set up a Twitter account to announce when I have a new post.
My handle is: @brklninvestor
I know many of you are not on Twitter, so I will figure out an email solution too, eventually.
Dimon on 60 Minutes
Jamie Dimon was on 60 Minutes this past Sunday. He is still one of my favorite CEOs and is great to watch. I thought his response to the question about running for president was pretty funny; "I thought about thinking about it..." That reminds me of one of my favorite Dr. Who lines (from the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith), "Am I thinking what I think I'm thinking?"
Anyway, in this environment, there is no way people like Dimon or Bloomberg would gain any traction in the Democratic party. I think either of them would make great presidents, but it just won't happen. No chance at all, unfortunately.
When Lesley Stahl mentioned the bailout of the banks during the crisis, Dimon should have pointed out that it wasn't really a bailout; all the money was paid back with interest (at least the major banks paid it all back). Schwarzman in the book below talks about how he cautioned Paulson about this; to try to avoid the use of the term bailout as it could become a problem if that word stuck. To this day, I still talk to people who think that the banks were "bailed out". They think that the government just gave the banks free money with no strings attached. They are often surprised to hear that the money has been paid back in full, with interest.
Having said that, the definition of "bailout" seems to be to offer financial assistance to an entity on the brink of collapse, so maybe TARP was a bailout. But still...
When asked about CEO pay, Dimon said, "what do you mean?", or something like that. It was clear he was trying to just avoid the question. To say he has nothing to do with his own compensation, while it may be technically true, wasn't really convincing to people who wouldn't understand. He could have just agreed that CEO pay is too high in this country, and that it should be dealt with at the tax level but probably shouldn't be resolved legislatively or whatever. No need to dodge the question. There is nothing wrong with saying that high income people should pay more in taxes (at higher rates), and that some of the crazy loopholes that reduce tax rates for the rich should be closed etc. He is not running for public office, so he is not taking any risk in saying stuff like that.
But anyway, it was nice to see him on 60 Minutes. Although I am progressive on many issues, I find the current anti-corporation sentiment to be unfortunate. Companies can only change their image by their actions. More and more companies are acting like they are the solution rather than the problem, which is good.
The markets are kind of crazy. I don't mean this rally, necessarily. A lot of this rally is just recovery from last year's drop and valuations are still in a zone of reasonableness, so I am not at all alarmed by it or worried about it.
I mean the way the markets react to every Trump tweet, or nowadays, Elizabeth Warren ideas. I like Elizabeth Warren a lot, actually, even though she seems to hate Dimon and everything Wall Street.
Whenever the markets tank when Warren's poll figures go up, just remember what happened on election day in 2016; the markets freaked out and tanked when it realized Trump is going to be our next president. But before the next morning, the market took off and hasn't looked back.
Remember what happened to health care stocks in 1992 (Hillary-care), and 2009 (Obama-care). When widely publicized problems hit the market, it is very hard to predict what will happen. Howard Marks would call reacting to these headlines first-level thinking.
First of all, we don't know if Warren is going to be nominated. Even if she is, we don't know if she will beat Trump. Even if she wins, we don't know how much of her plan can be executed successfully (will she run to the center for the general elections? Will she take a more prudent, realistic course of action once in the White House? I'm not saying her ideas are bad or impractical, but she can calibrate her goals according to the reality she confronts once she's there).
There are so many levels of "unknowns" that it makes no sense, really, to try to discount these things so far ahead.
Anyway, if any of these things move the markets too far in any direction, it's probably a great time to take advantage of it and go the other way.
Growth vs. Value
I hear and read about this all the time, and I totally get it and agree. I am a believer in mean-reversion. On the other hand, there are secular realities hidden in these figures too. For example, Bed, Bath and Beyond (BBBY) is one of my favorite stores and was one of my favorites in terms of management. I followed them closely for years, and eagerly looked forward to their annual reports. But it was always a pretty expensive stock. When it finally started getting cheap, it seemed to have lost it's way.
Maybe I am putting in the bottom in this stock, but these days, it's hard to figure out what this company is trying to be. Not too long ago, you would walk into a BBBY and then, suddenly, in the middle of the store, there would be like a miniature supermarket, with potato chips, cereal and whatnot. I was like, what?
It's like the newspaper business. As Buffett says, if you wouldn't start the business from scratch today, then it's probably not a good business. And if it's not a good business, you probably don't want to own the stock.
Again, I loved BBBY for many years (and it's just luck that it hasn't been a part of my portfolio), but it's hard to think of a reason for it to exist. A lot of what they sell is exactly the sort of thing Amazon is very good at selling, and for lower prices. Stores like Target are also selling similar things for competitive prices, so I guess it's a similar story where Target/Walmart/CostCo and others (Amazon) are killing the category killers; same as CD stores, book stores, toy stores etc.
This is not to say necessarily that we should go long AMZN and short BBBY, JCP and other retailers (well, that's been a great trade for a long time!). It's more of a question about how much of this growth versus value is the usual cyclical thing that will eventually mean-revert, and how much of it is secular destruction of multiple industries (I don't think most retailers will recover).
This is a fascinating story. I really admire the vision and conviction of Masayoshi Son. He is fun to watch and follow, and I have always wondered when and if I should buy Softbank stock. There were many reasons to buy it, especially the usual discount to the sum-of-the-parts valuation and things like that.
But one thing that has always bothered me was his almost reckless aggressiveness. I guess that's a good thing for someone in that area, but it was always a little too scary for me. I remember watching him in an interview, laughing at the fact that the price of Softbank stock went down 99% (or whatever percentage it was). I don't want the steward of my capital laughing about something like that. It is definitely not funny to me.
Also, the sheer size of some of these investments makes it highly unlikely that they can achieve high rates of return over time. Yes, Alibaba was a huge home run. So was Yahoo Japan and some others. But what were their capitalizations when the investments were made? I don't think they were valued at $40-50 billion. How much money were they losing? Probably not billions. Things are truly insane these days.
Thankfully, that unicorn bubble, at least, seems to have popped for the moment.
And by the way, the original intent of this post was about a book. I just finished Schwarzman's book, What it Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence and thought it was great. This is not a book you want to be reading in the company of your progressive friends (most of my friends and neighbors are progressive; many are even democratic socialists). Even some conservatives roll their eyes at a guy who throws himself expensive birthday parties and puts his name on library buildings. But I don't care about that. Not everyone has to be like Buffett or Munger.
But what I can say is that after all these years on and following Wall Street, I've mostly heard good things about Blackstone. When they IPO'ed, I followed closely and it was clear that they are a really well-run shop. At the time, Fortress Investment Group was the other private equity firm to go public before Blackstone, and I was really not all that impressed after following them for a while. Their performance was not great, hedge fund was not doing well etc. But Blackstone was at a totally different level.
Whether its their conference calls, presentations, it was all done very, very well.
The only reason I never bought the stock was that, like others, I was worried about the huge increase in AUM at all of these alternative asset managers. How are they going to maintain the high rates of return with ever-increasing AUM and ever-increasing competition, not to mention the corresponding ever-increasing prices? Schwarzman, in the book, makes the case that size has become an advantage for them; they get first call (or are the only call), often because they are the only ones that could close a deal of certain sizes.
I had the chance to grab some shares at under $4.00 during the crisis, but then there were many other things that were cheap too... But still, knowing what a solid shop it was, I shoulda grabbed some shares then. I guess one rule should be that any time a well-run company is trading for the price of an option, one should buy at least some shares!
Special Situations Trade
By the way, I should also mention that these private equity firms are in the process of converting from partnerships to corporations; this expands the range of potential buyers (institutions that wouldn't or can't own partnerships), which would serve to increase liquidity and most likely valuations of these companies.
I know many of us berk-heads think private equity is nothing but leveraging and cost-cutting, but I still think these guys have a high quality shop.
One thing that surprised me was how hard it was for Schwarzman / Peterson when they first started up, sending hundreds of letters to investors with no response, visiting potential investors and getting rejected for months on end. This reminded me of what Barbara Corcoran said in an interview once. The interviewer asked her what the difference between a good broker and a bad broker was, and she said the great brokers know how to take 'no'. If they can't close a deal, they move on to the next one and keep going. The bad ones aren't good at taking 'no', and it wears them down; they get discouraged and it impacts them too much to keep going.
I'm sure we've all seen examples of this. A friend once told me a relative wrote a novel, sent it to a publisher and it got rejected and they gave up writing and blames the over-commercialized, corporate-controlled, dumbed-down American culture for their failure as a novelist (and the friend agreed with that). I was a little shocked. So you write one novel, send it to one publisher, it gets rejected and it's all over? Well, I don't know anything about writing novels and have no idea how that world works, so I didn't say anything.
But I was thinking back to the many famous novelists who kept getting rejected from publisher after publisher, writing story after story before getting published. I think Haruki Murakami got published on his first try, but those are probably rare cases.
Going back to Schwarzman, even with his credibility / reputation (and Peterson by his side), they struggled to get Blackstone off the ground. You can imagine how much work it's going to take to get anything done without that sort of advantage.
Having said all that, it is an autobiography so we hear everything from his side. I'm sure there are people with tales out there somewhere he doesn't want told (and this goes for someone like Buffett too!).
But, it's still a good read.