Unstructured Finance

Jim Chanos, bad news bear, urges market prudence

Prominent short-seller Jim Chanos is probably one of the last true “bad news bears” you will find on Wall Street these days, save for Jim Grant and Nouriel Roubini. Almost everywhere you turn, money managers still are bullish on U.S. equities going into 2014 even after the Standard & Poor’s 500’s 27 percent returns year-to-date and the Nasdaq is back to levels not seen since the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999.

“We’re back to a glass half-full environment as opposed to a glass half-empty environment,” Chanos told Reuters during a wide ranging hour-long discussion two weeks ago. “If you’re the typical investor, it’s probably time to be a little bit more cautious.”

Chanos, president and founder of Kynikos Associates, admittedly knows it has been a humbling year for his cohort, with some short only funds even closing up shop.

But he told Reuters that the market is primed for short-sellers like him and as a result has gone out to raise capital for his mission: “Markets mean-revert and performance mean-reverts and even alpha mean-reverts if at least my last 30 years are any indication. And the time to be doing this is when you feel like the village idiot and not an evil genius, to paraphrase my critics.”

Chanos’ bearish views are so well respected that the New York Federal Reserve has even included him as one of the money managers on its investment advisory counsel. By his own admission, Chanos said he tends to be the one most skeptical on the markets.

The nine lives of the eminent domain for mortgages debate

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

Law professor Bob Hockett, widely credited with popularizing the idea of using eminent domain to restructure underwater mortgages, says he continues to be approached by yield-hungry angel investors looking for a way to help out struggling homeowners and make money at the same time.

He said an increasing number of wealthy investors on “both coasts” regularly reach out to him to get more information about how eminent domain would work and get a better read on “the prospects of municipalities adopting one or another variance of the plan.”

Hockett also is continuing to advise local officials in a variety of cities including some in New Jersey and New York (Irvington, N.J. and Yonkers, N.Y. for instance) on how they might use eminent domain to condemn, seize and restructure deeply underwater mortgages for homeowners determined to keep-up with their high monthly mortgage payments.

Carl Icahn in his own words

Icahn’s Big Year in investing and activism

By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein

We held an hour-long discussion with Carl Icahn on Monday as part of our Reuters Global Investment Outlook Summit, going over everything from his spectacular year of performance to his thoughts on the excessive media coverage of activists like himself who push and prod corporate managers to return cash to investors. We also talked about the legacy he wants to leave.

There was much Icahn wouldn’t talk about on the advice of his lawyer, however. While he said he took a look at Microsoft, he won’t say why he decided not to join ValueAct’s Jeffrey Ubben’s activist campaign. He also stayed mum on any plans for his Las Vegas white elephant, the unfinished Fontainebleau Las Vegas resort, which he bought out of bankruptcy proceedings in 2010.

Never one to mince words, Icahn said he takes issue with Bill Ackman’s brand of activism which he believes borders on micromanaging by telling chief executive officers how to do their jobs. “I think Ackman is the opposite of what I believe in activism. You don’t go in and you don’t go tell the CEO how to run his company.”

Money manager titans who can’t wait until 2014

The year can’t end fast enough for some of the world’s biggest investors.

Bill Gross, who many like to consider the King of Bonds, lost one of his prized titles last week when his PIMCO Total Return Fund was stripped of its status as the world’s largest mutual fund because of lagging performance and a swamp of investor redemptions.

The PIMCO Total Return Fund — somewhat of a benchmark for many bond fund managers — had outflows of $4.4 billion in October, marking the fund’s sixth straight month of investor withdrawals, and lowered its assets to $248 billion, according to Morningstar.

The housing proposal that won’t die

One of the biggest economic stories this year has been the recovery in U.S. home prices. But for the more than 11 million homeowners stuck with a mortgage that’s worth more than the value of their home, it has felt more like being Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

The housing crisis may be over for Blackstone, Colony, American Homes 4 Rent and other deep-pocketed investment firms snapping up foreclosed homes with cheap money courtesy of the Federal Reserve, but for many Americans they are still living with it some five years later.

So maybe that’s why  a controversial idea of using the government’s power of condemnation to seize and restructure distressed mortgages in order to provide debt relief to struggling homeowners  just won’t go away, even though many think it’s unconstitutional and bond investors have rallied to savage the proposal.

The sultans of swing

Although most investors have been pleased with the steadily rising U.S stock market over the past six months, funds that profit when markets are convulsing are licking their wounds.

With market stress at multi-year lows, volatility hedge funds returned just 1.16 percent in the first quarter, compared with 3.7 percent for the broader hedge fund group.

Some of the volatility specialists are doing better than others by capitalizing on major market moves in Japan, for example. And some are doing better simply because they are ‘short’ volatility funds – they tend to perform better when markets are calmer. But those funds are now few and far between.

Cash is king in housing

By Matthew Goldstein

It’s no secret that housing in the U.S. has become an investors market, especially if it’s an investor with cash to burn.

For more than a year now, we and just about everyone else in the financial media have been writing about how Wall Street-backed firms are looking to buy-up the wreckage of the housing bust on the cheap and rent out those homes until the time is right to sell them for a sweet profit. And it should come as no surprise that much of that buying is being done with cash because it’s the easiest way for an investor get a deal done quick.

Recent stats from the National Association of Realtors shows that 32 percent of all single family homes in the U.S. are being bought with that cash. But that’s not just foreclosures; it also includes homes listed by brokers. It’s a testament to how much money institutional investors like Blackstone and American Homes 4 Rent have been able to raise from high-net worth investors and others. all of whom are chasing yield in this low-yield world.

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.

Hedge funds love affair with leverage still on hiatus, for now

By Katya Wachtel

Last year was a sorry one for the $2 trillion hedge fund industry, when funds lost 5 percent on average. This year managers are doing better, up more than 5 percent for the year, according to the latest tracking data.

But those returns are a far cry from the 16.4 percent rise achieved by the S&P 500 this year, so what will hedge fund managers – who are supposed to be the smartest, savviest market players on the Street – do to juice returns?

For now at least, they’re not levering up in the hunt for yield. Certainly, they’re not ratcheting up portfolios to the levels seen pre-Lehman implosion, when returns were bountiful, and hedge fund managers reported leverage of 3.4, on average.

FHFA is not on an REO speed wagon when it comes to full disclosure

By Matthew Goldstein

The FHFA continues to reveal as little as possible about its pilot project of selling foreclosed homes to private investors in bulk sales.

With surprisingly little fanfare, the Federal Housing Agency announced this week that Pacifica Companies, a little-known San Diego investment firm, is the first company to emerge as the winner in the pilot project. Pacifica is buying 699 single-family homes that are part of Fannie Mae’s REO portfolio in Florida.

In the coming weeks, FHFA says it will announce the winning bids for bulks sales of REO homes in California, Arizona and Illinois as part of the much-hyped pilot project to sell 2,500 foreclosed homes. The agency that regulates Fannie and Freddie Mac says there will be no winning bid for some 541 homes it was planning to sell in Atlanta. The agency didn’t offer an explanation.

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