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Friday, 26 December 2008

Tales of fortunes made and lost in recessions

Success can be one of life's worst enemies. It engenders overconfidence and, as a result, one tends to let one's guard down - in some instances, to the extent of recklessness

(Createwealth has met his worst enemies in 2007, and failed to recognize them sooner, and thus the downfall in 2008)


MARKET crashes are the greatest redistributor of wealth. This has been true of previous crashes. But in the current turmoil, there are few beneficiaries, a friend noted. It is more a great destruction of wealth on a global scale so far.

A recession is a good time to start a business as costs are low. Disney, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Cisco are some of the companies that were founded in downturns.

Well, okay, some short-sellers may have profited from some of their trades. But many get wiped out in their next trade. Perhaps it is those who are not invested at all and who have the cash to pick through the carnage in the next few years who will really come out ahead. Who knows? Nobody is certain of anything anymore.

A lot of people have been hit hard this time around. There are a few reasons for this. One, prior to this, we've had four years of a bull market where prices had gone in only one direction.

Success, notes a friend, is one of life's worst enemies. It engenders overconfidence and, as a result, one tends to let down one's guard - in some instances, to the extent of recklessness. Economist Hyman Minsky sees the cycle of risk-taking in the economy as following a pattern: stability and absence of crises encourage risk-taking, complacency, and lowered awareness of the possibility of problems.

But even for those who are conservative and have their heads centred and feet firmly planted on the ground, the economics just a few months back suggested that being invested was the right course of action. Then, inflation was running at 5 or 6 per cent and banks' interest rates were at less than one per cent.

For someone who didn't want to have his or her purchasing power eroded, keeping the money in the bank wasn't the most logical of options. Which was why a lot of people are invested - and, worse, a lot took loans to invest. If the borrowing cost was so low, and one was expecting to make a return higher than that cost of borrowing, it made sense to borrow.

Of course, we know now that a lot of people had underestimated or even ignored the risk of trying to earn those extra percentage points of returns.

A friend shared with me some of the horrendous stories of how an enormous amount of wealth was destroyed in the last few months.

Up till last year, one man had $100 million of his worth in only one stock. Towards the end of last year, that stock started to decline. By early this year, the stock was down more than 50 per cent from its peak just a few months before.

The man picked up quite a few additional shares - on margin - thinking that the stock had bottomed and would eventually rebound. Since then, the stock has plunged by another 80 per cent. The $100 million is more than wiped out! The stock is Cosco Corp, which went from 10 cents in March 2003 to $8.20 in October last year - an 82 times jump. It is now trading at less than 70 cents.

Another guy had relatively much more modest means. His net worth was estimated at $2-3 million. He heard from 'reliable' sources that a particular company would be taken over by another at a significantly higher price than the stock's then market price. He bet all he had and, if I remember correctly, also took margin financing to buy that stock. The stock was FerroChina, which has since been suspended because it had run out of money to pay its suppliers and debtors.

One value investor thought Thailand was cheap a few years back. One particular company, a very big one, was trading at 1.2 baht - significantly below its book value. The investor concentrated his bet on that company. And, indeed, the market began to recognise the value of the company and the stock tripled to over 3 baht.

The value investor's portfolio grew to $26 million. In the last year or so, the stock has plunged to below 0.7 baht. The investor is now down some 50 per cent on his original capital.

Another man was shrewd enough to think that the market was overvalued towards the end of 2007. So he got out of the market, and even shorted it. He was happy that the market went the way he predicted. He was the smartest guy in town.

By June or July, thinking that the market had fallen enough, he loaded up on shares. Like the guys above, he too used margin financing to pick up the shares. As we know, the market took an even more severe turn in September and October. He too was dealt a severe blow.

A friend was also bearish about the market towards the end of last year. He had put in some shorts. Then last October, the market went on to hit record highs. He lost his resolve, and reversed his trades and got hit as well.

Another made quite a bit of money in the Singapore market. His confidence grew. He wanted a bigger stage. He bought US shares on margin. US stocks took a precipitous plunge a few months back. He has had a few rounds of margin calls.

A young banker in his late 20s made $2-3 million from the property market in the last few years. He ploughed all the profits into a $10 million property, and took loans of some $7 million. He's now saddled with a mortgage payment of some $30,000 a month.

Many of the real-life examples above show just how lethal leverage can be. In a rising market, leverage is your friend; in a down market, the blow dealt by leverage can knock one out for good.

Perhaps another lesson is to always take some profit off the table. Today, the valuations of stocks are at levels unseen in years, if not decades. 'It is at times like these, when there is a lot of fear, that one can make three or four times return on your capital,' a friend said.

Yes, we all know that. But so far this year, every time one thinks that fear is at its maximum, it moves up another level. And another problem is that a lot of investors have run out of money to buy. A lot of the 'liquidity in the system' before the crisis was from loans; now, that has dried up.

In any case, whether a stock is cheap or not is still debatable. According to State Street Global Markets, its global Investor Confidence Index® for November fell another 1.4 points to a historic low of 57 points. Commenting on the index, Andrew Capon of State Street said: 'Investors face a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, equities are cheap. Using earnings adjusted for leverage and cyclicality, the equity strategy team at State Street Global Markets estimates that the US price-earnings multiple is 26 per cent below its 147-year average.

'These are levels seen only in periods of extreme dislocation such as the Great Depression, World War II and the 1870s. On the other hand, nobody can be confident that this current economic slowdown will not turn out to be just such a period rather than a more typical recession. 'So far, during this crisis, it is the bleakest forecasters who have been proved right.'

Indeed, we are in unprecedented times now. The euro area and Japan are now officially in recession. Even without the US officially joining this unhappy club, countries representing close to 50 per cent of global GDP are now seeing growth contract, noted Mr Capon. Consensus economic forecasts for GDP growth in the developed world have been falling for 16 months and are at 20-year lows.

Growth in the last seven years or so was propped up by debt-financed consumption from the US. And Asia has built up tremendous capacities to cater to that growth. Now, that consumption has contracted because the enormous financial leverage has to be unwound. That deleveraging process and contraction of consumption will drag on for some time because income has also diminished - if not totally disappeared, given the waves of job losses.

In Asia, companies have to deal with all the excess capacities and the vanishing demand. Many companies will go bust. Jobs will be lost, pay cut. In China, the hardship could trigger social unrest. It could be apocalyptic. We just don't know what will happen in the future.

But the fact is that we are now in the throes of a crisis and that itself may colour our judgment. 'Last year, it felt like the sky was the limit; now, it's like we are sinking into a bottomless pit,' said a friend.

Back to what economist Hyman Minsky says about the cycle of risk-taking: stability encourages risk-taking and complacency. But when a crisis strikes, people become shell-shocked and scared of investing their resources.

People also often overestimate the probability of the worst-case scenario after a crisis has occurred.

So, for the optimists out there (if there are still any left), here's an inspiring story.

In 1939, with Hitler's Germany ravaging Europe, John Templeton - who believed in buying into companies at points of what he called 'maximum pessimism' - bought US$100of every stock trading below US$1 on the New York and American stock exchanges.

Templeton's trade got him a junk pile of some 104 companies, 34 of which were bankrupt, for a total investment of roughly US$10,400. Four years later, he sold these stocks for more than US$40,000! Only four out of the 104 became worthless.

Yet another positive spin. A recession is also a good time to start a business. Costs are low. But it is not a good time to do financial deals - that's for a bull market, an investment banker told me recently.

Indeed, in a downturn, established firms tend to cut back on their growth investments to focus on defending their established core activities. That will create niches to be served by smaller companies. And once the start-ups develop to a certain size and the general economy picks up, there will be no lack of big company buyers that are willing to absorb these start-ups into their fold. That fits into the theory of starting a business in a recession and selling it in a bull market.

Well, here are some of the companies that were founded in downturns: Disney, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Cisco. There is no lack of examples in the local context as well. The first Sakae Sushi outlet was set up in September 1997. Financial PR, one of the largest investor relations firms in Singapore, was founded in August 2001.

Over the next year, there will certainly be more people forced to work for themselves because they will lose their jobs and not be able to find other suitable employment. And it will be no surprise if some of the talented people now unable to find work in an investment bank or other big company direct their energies towards creating a new generation of successful start- ups, said The Economist in a recent article.

I'm sure we all know of friends who created businesses which are now worth millions of dollars because they decided to venture out on their own after being retrenched. Retrenchment can be a blessing in disguise for some. (I knew someone who was retrenched by ST Aerospace, and today he is running his own business, and rich enough to buy a private landed property. I don't think he could afford it if he had remained as Senior Technician in ST Aerospace)

The key, I guess, is not to lose hope - despite how bleak the outlook may seem now. And if one were to assume risk, let it be with capital that one will not need for at least 3-5 years. In the meantime, be grateful for what you have - be it your health or time with your family.

The writer is a CFA charterholder
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