Awful investing advice of the day, distressed-mortgages edition

By Felix Salmon
October 14, 2009
Michael Osinski has an interesting article on nymag.com about how he, a CMO-structurer-turned-oyster-farmer, is playing in the riskier end of the distressed-debt market.

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Michael Osinski has an interesting article on nymag.com about how he, a CMO-structurer-turned-oyster-farmer, is playing in the riskier end of the distressed-debt market.

I have no illusions about the risk of what I’m doing. Buying mortgage-backed bonds today is putting your finger to the wind in a storm, like you’re standing on a seawall facing a nor’easter. You know the second wave of defaults is coming. It’s forming out past Montauk, swelling in Gardiners Bay, about to smash into your seawall. Will it knock you down, rip your boat from its cleats, and scatter your oyster cages all along the rock pile?…

I buy my bonds through a former colleague named T…

You have to treat every bond like a time bomb, carefully assessing how much time you’ve got before it blows up in your face.

T. is selling me CMO bonds. I’ve bought seven of them in the last three months.

It’s a good, well-balanced piece, which shows how a sophisticated financial market professional is taking very careful and calculated risks with money he can afford to lose. He also knows, of course, that if he does end up losing that money, he has no one but himself to blame.

And then, at the end, it goes horribly, horribly wrong:

So how can you consider joining Michael Osinski and invest in toxic assets?

No!!!

The answer to that question is Do Not consider joining Michael Osinski. Do Not invest in toxic assets. And, whatever you do, Do Not start buying shares in things like BKT and HSM and TSI and FMY and HTR — ticker symbols all helpfully provided by nymag.com — especially if you think that in doing so you’re somehow replicating what Osinski is doing. You’re not.

Osinski is buying a very small number of very carefully-vetted bonds. This is the classic “PA” trade, where financial market professionals buy obscure instruments for their personal account in sizes which simply don’t scale up to the sort of money thrown around by institutional investors. Osinski’s bought seven bonds in three months, and I’m sure he went over each and every one in great detail with his friend T. That’s small-scale, highly-informed investing — the exact opposite of throwing your money at the Helios Total Return fund and hoping for the best.

Yes, the website does urge its readers to “be especially careful here”. But that doesn’t excuse spending 600 words on what you should do if, in a moment of recklessness, you decide that you want to ape the investing strategy of an oyster farmer who has just written a feature article for nymag.com, and who knows much more about what he’s doing than you ever will.

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