Business, Economics, Economy, Macroeconomy, MBA, Microeconomy, Private Equity, Thoughts

Dubai has financing troubles but… is it making a profit?

More than two years ago I was writing about Conspicuous consumption: from Thornstein Veblen to Jumeirah Palm. The reference to Dubai was almost mandatory of course. I’ve been to Dubai and I like the place. We all know that recently it has run into some trouble financing its debt. They are expecting a bailout from the United Arab Emirates which are playing hard to get.

My personal view is that they will get this bailout. Actually, I have little doubt of it. They must be now in the midst of a power struggle about how to manage all that. We have to remember that many western nations rushed to finance banks only to discover that they had forgotten to write down a few conditions in the contract about the remunerations to top managers and suddenly the public opinion cared more about those millions’ destination than for the rest of thousands of millions.

Leaving that aside, Dubai is similar to a long-term investing fund. In the long run you get your returns, not before. To manage it you need to be very cold, and not let the circumstances blind you.

But everything in Dubai is so shiny that it blinds you. That’s good for the brand, of course. So we have this dilemma: building shiny things maybe is not that good for the long run but, what else do you have to sustain your brand that very very shiny things?

No matter what happens now, the shiny brand is not so appetising anymore. And investors will think twice before risking again. I don’t want to compare Dubai to a Ponzi scheme, it is not, but to achieve the desired returns it needs to be able to sustain the investments arrival for a long-term period. Is it going to?

Since I’m not the Delphos’ Oracle I leave the reflection here. A small hint: it’s all about fundamentals. In the long run, an investment will survive and flourish if its a sound business. If we are dependent on a brand that requires too high a burning money rate, probably it won’t.

Having investors is a thing, when you lose them you can resource to forced investors (also called taxpayers) or stakeholders that have other interests (power in exchange for money, for instance) but, having a big enough profit for the expected yield, that’s another thing…

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Business, Economy, India, Macroeconomy, Microeconomy, Private Equity, Thoughts

Recovery or rebound? (long lasting pains)

It’s always nice to hear that Japan has grown a 3.7%. It makes eye-catchy headlines. But if you go deeper you see that the figure is just the annualisation of a mere 0.9% between April and June, and that in the first quarter the slump was around 11%. What does that tell us about statistical significance? After all, interpreting the figures will always be mediated by our wishful thinking.

A quarter may take us out of a formal recession but won’t make a new trend. I am the first whose wishful thinking would like this to be over, but it doesn’t seem likely to me. Still a lot of pain to endure to reverse the trend. Many things are pending to be able to grow healthily, albeit I admit that growth doesn’t need to be healthy to be growth.

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And when growth gets here again, there will be more pain to endure. Companies have made put themselves in protection mode, rightsized…sorry, I meant downsized; they may have made extraordinary things to get their products moving, to appease their customers and investors. Everything to get to the end of the tunnel. But that won’t be enough.

I hate to seem gloomy. I am not. My message here is quite simple. Even if we find the right path for recovery, we won’t be at the same place we’d left. Things will have changed. When the scared company opens its shell again, it may find itself in a very different place. Some currents will have dried out. Fortunately, and that’s where my optimism lies, new wells will start flowing, somewhere. But they won’t be at the same place we took for granted long ago.

Also we will have proven our customers there are other ways, that we can do more with less. That we can remove that slack, streamlined our operations, adjusted our overheads and given better quotes. Hopefully, they will have based their recovery on that, they won’t let us go back again to the previous business conditions. And we will have to adapt to that: more pain. The leakage of jobs will go on after the recovery is here. And no sense of urgency can last forever. Sometimes it’s easy to retrench than to transform oneself.

A silly example from my daily life. Calling from India to Spain five minutes costs 10€ with my Spanish cell. Driven by the necessity not to waste resources, the experiment is to do the same with my Indian cell: 54 rupees, which are approximately 0.85€. Do you think I’m going to use my Spanish cell here again?

Although this might seem irrelevant, it’s a sign that we customers are not that stupid after all.

Did you know that the Hilton Group is about to become extinct? Blackstone bought it for $26 billion in 2007, right now they owe $21 billion in debt. Refinancing that debt won’t cost that much right now, that’s not the problem. The problem is somewhere else: executive customers have massively forgot their loyalty to the firm seeking cheaper alternatives.

Did you know that the huge amount of money that Air India is losing just required its intervention? Probably you did. Same happens with other main Indian Airlines. The interesting part is that the low cost carriers that operate here are not losing money.

And when we are out of the crisis, if Air India and Hilton make it, surely by reducing prices and streamlining operations, the customers they will face will get accustomed to the new conditions and will keep asking more for less. After all their own streamlining depends on that. What used to be exceptional will become somehow the norm and the companies not aware of that change will suddenly open their shells in a dry desert.

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Business, Economy, Macroeconomy, MBA, Private Equity, Thoughts

Lehman’s fall (or the necessary and dangerous road back to rationality and who will pay the bill)

Yes, you already know it. Lehman Brothers one and a half century of reign has ended ominously. As every corpse, it needs a hole in the ground to be buried. The problem here is that this hole is $600 billion big.

On my last post I was writing about the twins and their attempted rescue. Now we are seeing a glimpse of the real problem, that won’t stop here. AIG, brutally exposed to credit fault swaps, is going to be the next one. Who said this was going to be brief? One year of crisis, and we are still going down. The echos of ’29 are beginning to ring into the monetary authorities’ ears. But that’s another matter…

Remember when I wrote about the end of cheap money fifteen months ago? There was a graph there worth rescuing now.

Just a quick reference: M2 and M3 are common metrics or measures for money. M2 referred to domestic economies, M3 included the money that had been refuelling the economy, making stocks soar, gone into funds, hedge funds, private equity or debt. Money that, let’s say, was not 100% based on real needs of the economy but bets over bets over bets, all of them based in the perpetuation of the economy growth. Well, it didn’t.

Let’s say it another way: there was an excess of financial products relative to demand. Call it excess of offer, overcapacity, inflation, yet another bubble… Some of the products were simply traded between themselves, a huge casino where they grew interconnected, multiplied their correlated risk, while the real investors did not have a say, while the real investments were non-existent. The blue curve went too far from the red curve.

Now that the party is over agents will have to adjust accordingly. If they must be evaluated again based on the real price of their assets, things will get very ugly, very very ugly. Valuations might as well halve, employment in the financial sector will drastically be reduced as well.

What about the hero and saviour here? Well, it has been mangling with the system, saving the twins… sorry their creditors at the expense of their shareholders, never realising the road ahead was too bumpy. They have now… and it’s too late.

The great thing about capitalism is the freedom to do whatever you want with your money. When things are fine you deregulate, explore new skies, advocate for a minimum involvement from the state. I never saw any of them coming to society and saying… “wait, we want to contribute more, we want to raise that tax 20%, as our benefits have soared thrice, and give back some of our benefits to the society that has made it possible”. Nope at all. Instead it was all thanks to them. They gave us some lectures about corporate social responsibility, spent a lot of money in green branding, spent some more on carbon footprint rhetorical, and simply took the money away.

But when things get grim, the same capitalists and economic liberals are no liberals any more. The benefits were private, the losses socialised. Overnight, those same successful liberals become advocates of communism and claim that it’s not their fault: that the context is bad, the cojunture unmanageable, that volatility is impredictable, uncertainty more uncertain than ever and that the complexity that they proudly created should have been regulated from the first day. Sad, very sad.

Notwithstanding the evidence against them, we are out of options. It’s the taxpayers the ones that will have to pay the price of the party, and remember: the wealthy, those who have been irrationaly and exhuberantly gaining in this game, are the ones whose fiscal charges were reduced because they were creating growth, benefits and employment. How is that for assimetry and moral hazard?

After all this, and the suffering that will entail, there’s still hope: it’s called the survival of the fittest. But I’ll write about it another day…

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b-school, Business, Economics, Economy, Macroeconomy, MBA, Microeconomy, Private Equity

Financial weapons of mass destruction unleashed in the US (the party is over)

It supposedly began with a bubble. Just another bubble like the one I described on The South Sea Company (or how Sir Isaac Newton spurned the dismal science). The bubble was fuelled by an excess of liquidity. It had to end someday. We learned the word subprimes. We knew it had to mean trouble.

Liquidity injections were administered and succeeded. But they were just patches for a bigger problem. And then they asymmetrised the risk: there were institutions willing to provide liquidity when needed, to reward higher risks, to stimulate the economy further up and away from reality. Until the moral hazard was too huge.

And then it ended too abruptly. The wells of money simply drained and, those whose business was to ensure the efficient distribution of liquidity between the different players just became inefficient. From excess to world wide scarcity, even for sound projects. It became a financial crises.

Few crises have been so focused on the financial system like this one. Because that’s what’s really in trouble here, the whole financial system. I began in the UK with Northern Rock, now nationalised thanks to Alistair Darling. In the meantime Daniel Bouton from Societe Generale didn’t know what was happening in his bank until he lost more than his reputation. And the Swiss face value is also in an all-time-low: just take a look at UBS and Credit Suisse (also First Boston).

But where really is too darn hot is in the US. Bearn Sterns is in flames, expiring his final breath. Bought by $270 million, it was valued about $20.000 million one year ago. A 85-year-old Wall Street institution simply died.

And those that bought companies using leveraging, namely private equity, now see the liabilities piling on top of the roof. Take a look at Blackstone: their profit for the last quarter was less than a half of what was expected, and dropping. Of course its value is dropping too.

We gave it complete freedom. They took it. They invested again and again in the same risky assets, albeit chopped and transformed so they didn’t look like they were the same: collateralised debt, mortgage insurances, mortgage reinsurances, credit swaps and all kinds of derivatives that were the same dog, different collar.

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And when the system was in trouble: more liquidity. Await for some more in the next days. New bolts and flashes from the Fed to try to contain it all. But no regulations… in any case it would be too late for that. And always paying a huge price in inflation… until that game is not longer possible.
The dollar’s dropping. The safe heaven for savings all over the world that financed the US debt has ended. If you add up the soaring energy prices, and the huge public deficits, the US credibility is under minimum. The country risk is dangerously rising… no more overspending, no more cheap financing, the party is over.

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b-school, Business, Management, MBA, Private Equity

Cerberus gets his prize with Chrysler (A new chance to see private equity management)

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Daimler no more. Finally Cerberus got their way. (Remember the post Cerberus Capital Management: another style for private equity). One icon buys another. In those five months, thousands of hours spent at the negotiating table as well as more than $7,400 million.

So it seems the time has come for Cerberus to get their chance to manage Crysler in their own way. Chrysler needs it badly. Chrysler needs to retake the profitability path and that will mean some additional leaning or, probably, even severe downsizing.

The ones to decide will be the new management team: 150 professionals brought by Cerberus. Headed by Robert L. Nardelli.

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Ex-chief of Home-Depot, his eyes should add a new and fresh perspective to the Chrysler problem. Star in GE energy division, he lost the race to replace Jack  Welch. Then he was controversial at Home Depot because his earnings and his conflicts with shareholders that finally ousted him.

Now we will be able to see the difference in management between a long established and experienced firm such as Daimler Benz and Cerberus’ own style. In these days of increased capital costs it’s very important for the market to perceive the value added by private-equity management. That value can be proved in Cerberus in the forthcoming months… or not.

There are many unanswered questions. This time, they swear, there are no plans to chop the company to pieces and sell them, but some days ago the unions  threatened for a strike avoided at the last minute. Cerberus had also sworn to keep the previous managers but promises are just that… promises. Now they say it is reasonable to change management when facing new challenges. And the auto industry is amid turbulences right now, as Toyota, Ford or Honda can witness too.

Next questions only time will answer: can Cerberus provide the right management for Chrysler? Is Nardelli the right man for the job?

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b-school, Business, Economy, MBA, Microeconomy, Private Equity

Blackstone going public… not so well (at least something is coming back to markets)

My readers (thank you for being there) already know that Blackstone is a private equity firm that I like and I’ve been following lately (See China and Blackstone: bad news for capital markets, good news for private equity).

I’ve always visualised private equity firms as a way to avoid the market’s constraints, and the firm’s constraints also, to be able to make longer term moves in order to ensure efficiency and the emergence of sunk benefits inside the firm (See Defensive strategies from private equity).

The funny thing is to see how a private equity firm just decides to go public. In any case, makes a lot of sense to me. At least the market recovers part of what has been taken off it. ($4.13 billion are a nice prodigal son to welcome home)

And Blackstone decided to do just that and went public last Friday.

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Graph source Yahoo Finance

This graph is from IPO-day. If you read the news, it was a success, as the PR guys and gals are saying: biggest US IPO in the last four years, executives going mega-rich and all that stuff.

And I concur that it was a success. But not a wild success: a mild one.

In the picture, the trade for Friday: the share ended up at $35.06, far higher than the initial price of $31, a 13% more… of course it went up, it was already over-subscribed. But, take a second look, it didn’t go that far up. The Fortress Investment Group went 33% up in its IPO last February, and it wasn’t as sexy or hyped as Blackstone.

Things are changing. As I have also written before, cheap money is going scarce. (see Rates keep raising: is this the end of cheap money?) And maybe we’ve reached the peak. Bond’s yields are going up too.

Let’s take a peek at the market:

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Graph source Yahoo Finance

The graph is the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index over the last year. The two curves below are the Relative Strength (RSI) and the Money Flow (MFI).

The RSI measures the internal strength, the momentum, and it’s indicative when the security reaches a high and the signal fails to reach one. It’s not as low as it was in March’s crisis, but it’s in the second lowest for the last year.

The MFI also measures momentum but takes into account volume as well as price. In this case it has shown repeatedly how the market was loosing strength, thus slowing the slope, so there is a divergence there. In any case it would be worrying if this signal went below 20%, which has not happened.

But my point is that things are not as bright as they were before. And probably things will be harder from now on. If these guys were discounting new highs, they could have waited for a better moment. But they decided to go in now. There must be a reason for that. Behind the curve probably we will find a bumpier road, not the accustomed highway they’ve enjoyed until now.

And, just another thought, another interpretation from a different perspective: is it sustainable that private equity firms enjoy a 15% tax rate while public companies are at 35%? Doesn’t seem quite fair. There’s a hard debate on this and proposed changes on legislation on the way… is Blackstone equity already discounting the conclusion of the debate? (or at least the uncertainty)

Last food for thought today: KKR has also announced it will go public. (yummy, yummy)

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b-school, Business, Economy, Management, MBA, Microeconomy, Private Equity

Defensive strategies from private equity (spin-yourself-off)

Those of you who read me know my ideas about private equity and how it has become an increasingly efficient way to invest the “big bucks”. I wrote about this in China and Blackstone: bad news for capital markets, good news for private equity.

I have to confess I like the concept of private equity. Although private equity firms probably wouldn’t considering hiring me, I’d hire them to increase efficiency. Their whole business is about efficiency gains: buy some under-performing firm, use your credibility to increase debt to pay the buy-out, make it perform again. If the gains are similar to the costs, the company is yours… *for free*.

Of course I’m exagerating. That’s a simplification, but, for comparing purposes, what happens if you compare their strategy to the diversification strategies undertaken by big companies? We have extra resources, we are not really interested in giving them away to our investors, or owners, so we are going to buy some business out of our core knowledge and know-how to have less risk and at the same time less yields.

Why should anyone do that? Well, managers would say there are synergies to be gained, but, as you know, sometimes those synergies never make it out of the power-point file.

The real reason to do that is that the managers need to keep busy, and need content to present in their next shareholders meeting, probably speaking about another business they don’t know anything about. (Fortunately, neither the shareholders)

Are they paid to do this? Are they suitable to do this? Hell, no!

Not so long ago, they were pretty relaxed and calm because nobody would object anything to that strategy. Even shareholders didn’t see that it was easy to reduce their risk just diversifying investments in different companies instead of diversifying core businesses.

If the investor can diversify by himself, companies shouldn’t try ventures alien to their business.

Then, why were the big companies so unperturbed just doing that? Because they were huge. Or at least too big for hostile takeovers.

And then came KKR with RJR Nabisco (See article about KKR here), and Cerberus with Chrysler (See article about Cerberus here), starting a series that could end with ABN Amro or who knows what. Being huge is not safe anymore.

A new signal emerges from markets. It’s the end of diversification. It’s time to concentrate on your core business. For public companies there’s only one protection strategy for private equity. And it’s no longer to be huge, now you need to be efficient instead.


Barbam propinqui radere, heus, cum videris, praebe lavandos barbulae prudens pilos
(in latin, if you neighbour is being shaven, do get your beard ready)

*Efficiency will save you from private equity*

Got an interesting non core business? Let it go. Otherwise private equity will come for you, and spin it off you.

Inside the non-efficient companies lie a lot of unused resources that justify the gains private equity need as an excuse to assault them. If only those companies could use those same resources for protection…

But that would mean being efficient again. That would mean ruthless reestructuring. That would mean hard and painful decisions. That would mean having to face change, sometimes radical change. That would mean challenging established authority. In short that would mean working more and better.

One last problem about leaning and trimming yourself: why do it yourself when private equity can do it more efficiently than you? (And market seeks efficiency, somehow)

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