Unstructured Finance

The volubility index

By Matthew Goldstein

With money managers increasingly falling in love with their own voices and so many willing to give them a platform to air their thoughts, I’ve long thought it would be good if someone could come up with a Volubility Index that measured performance against the number of times someone was quoted or made some stock, bond, or market prediction.

It won’t be me because I’m not enough of a math geek or algo genius to even think about how to put something like that together–but it would be interesting to see the results. And given this year’s big surge in money managers spouting off–what with the Ackman-Ichan blood feud over Herbalife and and Einhorn trying to be ever so clever in trying to stop the slide in Apple shares with his iPrefers share class dividend proposal–may be it just will happen.

Anyway, the latest issue of Businessweek with its cover story on David Einhorn and the failure of the “Einhorn effect” to work its magic on Apple’s stock got me thinking again about the Volubility Index. The BW story is a long one and chronicles Einhorn’s long history of driving down the price of stocks he is shorting, but notes his plan to get Apple to unlock its big pile of cash is having limited impact on the stock–even after the Greenlight Capital manager held an unusual press conference to discuss his idea.

Personally, I don’t think it’s much of surprise that the Einhorn effect hasn’t had much impact on Apple. It’s hard for a manager to move a big cap stock like Apple through activism and it’s far easier to do that on the short side–especially with a less widely held stock like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters or for that matter Herbalife, which Ackman caused to plunge late last year with his big short thesis. For more on the trouble with moving big cap stocks, look at Ackman’s trouble with calls to shake up Target a few years back.

Carson Block’s Muddy Waters outfit has gotten a lot of early attention for its short side attacks on Chinese companies that question the accounting practices at those companies. But one short seller told me a lot of the early companies Block’s firm wrote about like Sino Forest were ripe for the picking because no one was really paying much attention.

Hedge funds stockpiled Citi, axed Apple in Q4

More research was published today showing that the honeymoon is over for American hedge fund managers and technology giant Apple. The iPhone maker was one of the top two most sold stocks by hedge funds in the fourth quarter, according to an analysis of regulatory filings by Bank of America. (The other stock was  Tyco International).

This industry-wide ditching of Apple came as AIG  replaced the iPhone maker as hedge fund land’s most loved top-10 stock holding in Q4. It was the first time Apple had been knocked out of pole position in three years. For a list of some of the big names that ditched Apple, see this story by Aaron Pressman.

Meanwhile, BofA analysts found that the top two stocks purchased by hedge funds in the three months to December were  Facebook and Citigroup. The AIG and Citi buys were part of a larger move into financials by hedge funds in the fourth quarter, the BofA Hedge Fund Monitor report showed, and away from technology companies.

The amazing shrinking pile of non-agency mortgage debt

By Matthew Goldstein

Many cash-strapped, unemployed or underemployed people are still struggling with too much consumer and household debt. But there is one kind of debt that is getting smaller and smaller–mortgage bonds issued during the U.S. housing bubble by Wall Street banks and finance firms that isn’t guaranteed by either Fannie Mae of Freddie Mac.

The outstanding dollar value of  so-called private label residential mortgage bonds, or non-agency mortgage debt, is $909 million, according to stats compiled by CoreLogic and mutual fund firm Doubleline Capital. At its peak in July 2007, the total of private label mortgage debt was $2.2 trillion.

In July 2007, the financial crisis began in earnest as ever-so-late-to-game rating agencies began downgrading en massse a whole range of private label mortgage debt, much of which was backed by mortgages taken out by borrowers with either iffy credit histories or who put almost no money down for a home. As we all know the market for private mortgage debt shut-down and only now is beginning to show the first signs of coming to life–or green shoots as some might say.

Ray Dalio went into this year even more bullish than we thought

By Matthew Goldstein

Hedge fund titan Ray Dalio is really bullish on stocks and all things risky–at least he was in early January.

A few weeks ago, our competitors at Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal did a good job reporting on Dalio’s macro market thesis for 2013 when they got a transcript of an investor call (Bloomberg) and a sneak peak at Bridgewater Associates’ year-end report to investors (WSJ). But after taking my own recent look at Bridgewater’s year-end investor note–book is probably a better description for the 300-page plus bound treatise–you realize that bullish just doesn’t describe Bridgewater’s stance going in 2013.

Here’s a sampler of some of Bridgewater’s comments to investors:

“Cash in the developed world is a terrible asset.” “We would be short cash of all the major developed currencies” And this: “Bonds will be a lousy investment but cash will be worse.”

The retailization of the single family home rental play

By Matthew Goldstein

It started slowly but the push by Wall Street into the single family rental market is fast becoming a Main Street play as well.

Last year, one of the big stories on Wall Street and in the U.S. housing market was the push by institutional investors to raise billions of dollars to snap-up foreclosed homes and rent them out while waiting for the right time to sell them. It’s become the biggest “long” bet on housing for private equity giants like Blackstone, which has already spent close to $3 billion buying up more than 16,000 foreclosed homes.

And with Wall Street firms all projecting they can get an 8% return from renting out the the homes they acquire, the foreclosed home market has become a great yield play for yield-starved wealthy investors.

The dollars keep rolling in for foreclosed home funds

By Matthew Goldstein

Today, The Wall Street Journal reports that foreign investors have caught the gold rush mentality that surrounds the market for foreclosed homes in the U.S. But domestic-based firms are still doing quite well themselves in raising big dollars to buy-up foreclosed homes with an eye to renting them out before eventually selling them.

A foreclosed home fund managed by Tom Barrack’s Colony Capital recently disclosed in a regulatory filing that it had raised $536.7 million from 54 “accredited” investors. The fund relied on JPMorgan Chase’s wealth management team to do some of the selling.

Colony, along with private equity giant Blackstone Group and Malibu, Calif. based American Homes 4 Rent, have emerged as the three biggest buyers of foreclosed homes over the past year. Blackstone has spent well over $1 billion on buying up roughly 16,000 homes, and American Homes, backed by $600 million from the Alaska Permanent Fund, isn’t far behind.

Jim Chanos and the bears come out of hibernation

By Matthew Goldstein 

The year is young, but so far its been a rough one for bearish stock investors with the S&P 500 is up 7.25% The surge in equity prices has left  a lot of short sellers–traders who bet on a stock sliding in value–with glum looks on their faces. And it’s with that bullish backdrop that several dozen of Jim Chanos’ closest friends gather in Miami for the noted short seller’s annual meeting of the bears.

The gathering of 40 or so people from Wednesday through Friday is a chance for Chanos and other like minded investors to kick around their best short ideas. A year ago, there was a lot of talk about shorting companies in the natural gas space.

The annual event at a resort in West South Beach is one where the invited guests are sworn to secrecy. That’s why there’s almost never any press coverage of the event, and even less coverage of the short ideas presented by Chanos & Co.

FBI to press: How are we doing?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s press office has embarked on a bit of customer satisfaction research: The department is asking journalists to rate its performance during the hostage standoff in Alabama that ended last week.

It is a rare glint of cooperative spirit in the traditionally contentious relationship between journalists and public relations specialists.

A public affairs officer sent journalists an online survey asking them to say whether the information the FBI gave them during the early days of the standoff was “sufficient” – enough to do their jobs – or whether it was too little.

Is Blankfein’s beard really just a beard?

Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein has been sporting a beard lately, which has some people asking: is he on his way out?

The 58-year-old former commodities salesman shaved his beard, lost 50 pounds and quit smoking as he prepared to take over the reins of Goldman Sachs in 2006. He also “started dressing more like a banker and less like a renegade,” according to William Cohan, a former investment banker who wrote a book about Goldman Sachs.

Although Blankfein hasn’t been seen sporting motorcycle jackets or packing on the pounds yet, he surprised crowds at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month with more than a five o’clock shadow. And on Tuesday he appeared on CNBC again with an even fuller beard.

One more try at the Great Refi

By Matthew Goldstein

Don’t be surprised if President Obama includes a line or two in his State of Union address this evening about the need for a plan to allow millions of struggling homeowners whose mortgages are packaged into so-called private label mortgage-backed securities to get a chance to either refinance their loans or restructure them.

The Washington Post is reporting today that mortgage refinancing may be one of the laundry list of items Obama will talk about tonight. And for several months now, investors in private mortgage-securities–deals issued by Wall Street banks and financial firms and not guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie–have been quietly bracing for the Obama administration to move forward with a new refinancing effort.

Up until now, the federal government’s main attempts at trying to help homeowners take advantage of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep pushing interest rates to zero has been to prod banks and mortgage servicers to refinance home loans held in so-called agency debt guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. But programs like HAMP and HARP have provided little relief to the millions of homeowners whose loans are held in private label securities.

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