20/05 – May Market Commentary


US jobless claims fell at the end of May but unemployment rate likely remains near record high. As has happened in the past, it seems this high unemployment rate will grind lower slowly. Restaurants are probably the most illustrative example – it has been estimated that as many of 20% of restaurants may have permanently closed. And what about other hospitality businesses and airlines?


For now, there are federal support programs in place to help with lost income across the country. As time passes, however, it is less likely for these programs to remain in place. Unless many of these displaced workers can return to work in a short period of time there is likely to be an adjustment period. These lost incomes will result in credit losses at lenders (banks, mortgages, credit cards, etc) when debts can no longer be serviced and will result in lower consumption (we are a consumption-based economy). These issues will reverberate around other parts of the economy. It is called a recession. With how deep of a cut this second quarter is expected to be, we may be lucky to avoid a depression.


Investors like to celebrate Warren Buffett and his investment insights. What no one wants to acknowledge is what we have seen the last few months. Berkshire Hathaway has a fortress balance sheet with at least $130 billion in liquidity. Berkshire has announced no deals, something he is known for during market chaos. In fact, Berkshire has been liquidating several large investments – airlines and Goldman Sachs – and trimmed some other positions like JP Morgan and Wells Fargo. Warren Buffett likes to talk positively about long-term outlook for the United States – and we would not disagree, per se… it’s not what the future looks like so much as the path between – but do you suppose he is bullish on the US stock market and economy at these prices? As always, we think his actions speak louder than his words.


Retailers are reeling from the countrywide COVID-19 lockdowns. Many were struggling before the virus. For some major retailer brands it was the last straw. Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, and J Crew are just a sampling of names to recently file for bankruptcy. Others, like Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Nordstrom, have scrambled to shore-up finances and have completed secured debt deals since March. For an industry (brick and mortar retail) that has been in secular decline, it is tough to look across the landscape now and see opportunity, especially on the equity side.


US-China relations continue to fray.


  • The Trump administration is blaming China for allowing the virus to infiltrate the United States. To be sure, on the one hand we are to believe that the virus is nothing (just the flu, not even) and on the other hand we are to hold China accountable.
  • The trade deal phase 1 may be in jeopardy. For one thing, China has suspended US agriculture purchases.
  • China has moved forward with tucking Hong Kong under its unified control and the US responded by moving to strip Hong Kong of its special “One Country, Two Systems” policy. This has allowed HK to remain a central financial and economic hub to Asia post the British handover in 1997.
  • The US is threatening to suspend participation in WHO.
  • The US has warships in the South China Sea

The US is moving toward stricter listing of Chinese companies on US exchanges and restricting Federal pension plan investment into Chinese companies.

Junk Bonds

Some bonds issued into the junk bond market since the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown are souring.


Elsewhere in the junk bond world the Federal Reserve is holding worthless bonds it purchased through one of its market support mechanisms. The Fed purchased junk bonds through ETFs in its secondary market purchases and now holds several bankrupt securities like Hertz Global, JC Penney, and Neiman Marcus.


The dichotomy of haves and have nots in this economic calamity is astonishing. While the credit markets still seem to be sorting things out – bankruptcies and distress on one side of the market and open new issue on the other side of the market – equity markets are screaming higher with NASDAQ 100 a short reach from all-time-high. The S&P 500 has cleared 3,000 but is still down modestly year-to-date.


We wonder: if credit has trouble lending to some of these companies then what could a rational investor expect from owning the stock? Are indexers not looking through to the underlying? That is rhetorical.


  • Share price tumbles after CEO, Musk, says price too high: link
  • Secures $565 million from Chinese banks: link
  • Tesla sues to reopen California factory: link
  • Tesla threatens to leave California: link
  • Tesla and county reach deal for plant reopen: link
  • NASA human spaceflight chief resigns: link
  • SpaceX inaugural astronaut flight/launch postponed: link
  • Musk gets $775 million stock: link

SpaceX launches astronauts into space and to the International Space Station: link

Negative Interest Rates

Low and negative rates appear to be here to stay.


  • US money market funds are waiving fees to prevent the funds from generating negative returns for investors. What price are you willing to pay for safe storage of your cash?
  • The UK issued its first negative yield gilt. Think of it like I give you a dollar and you give me less than a dollar back. Yay!

Fed funds futures may foresee negative Fed funds rate.

10/2018 Market Commentary

Things are going great for companies that have never made money and not-so great for companies that make (or used to make) money. Titans are falling.


We are in an Uber economy. Uber was able to issue $2 billion debt in a debut bond sale during October. The debt is unrated, suggesting it would otherwise be low quality, not unlike no earnings brethren Tesla (B-) and Netflix (BB-). The debt was “privately placed,” meaning only “sophisticated investors” could buy it. But how sophisticated of an investor do you need to be to wonder how a company so successful in recent years could still be reporting NEGATIVE ADJUSTED EBITDA. There is a lot to unpack from the three words, starting with EBITDA, which is generally a highly manipulated number (within the bounds of GAAP*, of course). Then, it is ADJUSTED (non-GAAP*, or outside the bounds of GAAP*) to management’s liking. Despite all these accounting shenanigans, the EBITDA that comes out the other side of Uber is still NEGATIVE. Note that the brethren, Tesla and Netflix, both have positive EBITDA, adjusted and reported. Keep in mind that EBITDA not only serves as the usual measure of leverage (debt-to-EBITDA), but it is also most common proxy for debt service (EBITDA-to-interest-expense or as proxy for cash flow). With Uber, there is the absence of EBITDA. All that remains is hope. That’s not usually a good starting place for credit analysts.

Another major announcement related to Uber was that it plans to become publicly traded in 2019 (called an Initial Public Offering, or IPO for short). The rumored value the company will seek is $120 billion. Wow! This must be the allure of lending $2 billion to Uber, money is expected to rush in. But at the same time, competitor Lyft announced it also planned an IPO for 2019. The valuation Lyft is seeking is $15 billion, or 1/8 the size of Uber. While rider market share skews to Uber, we wonder which is more prudent for an investor – investing with the hope of keeping market share or investing with the hope of capturing market share in this disruptive (and profitless) industry.

*GAAP is General Accepted Accounting Principles and is a framework within which companies are required to report to the SEC for the benefit of investors.

General Electric

To begin the month, General Electric ousted its 13-month CEO as the company continued to perform poorly (though it was not necessarily his fault, in our opinion). We commented on that as part of the September Market Commentary. To close the month of October, under the new CEO, General Electric announced it would slash its dividend to $0.01 per quarter, down from $0.12 per quarter. For any GE investor holding out for better times, while earning a good dividend yield, the announcement has been a rude awakening. To the new (newest) CEO’s credit, he is not forthcoming with projections or promises. Instead, he has prescribed that his first 100 days will be positioning the company to win “and accelerating deleveraging”. Ballast views these actions as entirely sensible given the situation. However, we do not think stock investors will feel reprieve for some time, considering there is a lot of debt and, therefore, a lot of deleveraging ahead. Also, most of the heavy lifting will come from restoring business fundamentals, something tied more to the economy and less with this CEO’s first 100 days.

A closing thought: Scrutiny of General Electric has reached a number of company segments – including life insurance and power generation – where GE took massive accounting charges in recent quarters. What if General Electric were also to have engine problems in its CFM joint venture? Examples are Jakarta, Southwest, and Southwest 2? Although CFM engines CFM56 and LEAP-1B are different engines, the former is the precursor of the latter, so technologies and processes were likely adopted in the new version. Hopefully that doesn’t mean investors will meet a new CEO next year.


The company has suffered numerous consecutive quarters of revenue decline, despite several initiatives to jump start growth. Watson has yet to take off, and in fact, reviews suggest end-use struggles to be of practical use. Perhaps a major tell is that IBM is marketing through TV commercials to ordinary consumers about the great things that IBM does, but these end consumers don’t buy IBM services – though they might buy the stock. Weird.

Nevertheless, IBM just announced a $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat (ticker RHT), a company that sells services to users of open source software that is used in many servers (think internet, cloud, or virtual). The transaction is part attempt to buy growth and other part attempt to capture more of the cloud services market share. The trick, as always, will be execution – capturing revenue synergies by using IBM’s sales force and keeping major Red Hat customers that also happen to be IBM competitors (Amazon, Oracle, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, et al). Whatever your sentiment on the merits of the deal, the value paid is rich. Prior to the announced acquisition, Red Hat was trading at a market capitalization of $20 billion, though it did reach $30 billion in recent summer months. Still, Red Hat has $3.0 billion revenue and $500 million of net income, making $34 billion enterprise value-paid a high price even factoring in growth. All risk falls to IBM and its shareholders. It is no surprise that IBM price response was lower.

Market Correction Redux?

For the Nasdaq, yes. The other indexes, no. Here is the math:

  • Dow Jones: high 26,828 on 3 October, low 24,442 on 29 October, -8.9% decline
  • S&P: high 2,930 on 20 September, low 2,641 on 29 October, -9.8% decline
  • Nasdaq: high 8,109 on 31 August, low 7,050 on 29 October, -13.0% decline

Like we said in March, we do not see this as a buy-the-dip moment. Much of that view remains the same, so you are welcome to read that post as a refresher.

AB Inbev (Anheuser Busch)

The owner of Anheuser Busch, Miller, Corona, Modelo, Stella Artois, et al has seen sales and earnings fall short of targets. As a result, the company slashed its dividend to common stockholders and will focus on deleveraging. Debt increased substantially when Inbev acquired SABMiller in 2016. Competition continues to strengthen from craft beers and consumer shift to wines and spirits. Nevertheless, Ballast views commitment to cut leverage above else as sensible. We appreciate a management that gets ahead of a leverage problem by cutting a dividend.


You remember – that retailer in Everytown USA. It finally filed for bankruptcy after years of decline. Sears, at one point in its history, was one of the biggest companies in the world. Surprising to some are the big brands born under Sears. Some of the more obvious are Diehard, Kenmore, Craftsman, et al. The less obvious are AllState Insurance, Discover Financial, and Homart Development (what became a major part of General Growth Properties, one of the largest mall owners). Then, there were companies bought and later sold by Sears, which includes real estate broker Coldwell Banker and securities broker Dean Witter (now part of Morgan Stanley). It’s been a long decline, and we will see if Sears makes it on the other side of Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy.


More Tesla in October. We assure you we look forward to one day not having anything to say or report about this saga. Here, again, we will list some of the major occurrences of the month:

  • Musk buys $10 million Tesla stock and pledges to buy another $20 million.
  • Tesla’s China factory is said to produce two car models. But wait – it’s still raw ground, going through approvals. The land was acquired this summer.
  • Critical and short-seller, Citron Research, did a U-turn and said he is long Tesla, believing the company would report a strong third quarter. Mind you, Citron is suing Tesla for the “funding secured” tweet, seeking damages for losses incurred. Citron also said they learned a lot about the auto industry, and it is why he changed his mind. Right…
  • Earlier in the month, Tesla announced the acquisition of land in China for a production plant. At the same time, the company stated it would be two to three years before production would begin.
  • The Vice President of Manufacturing left the company.
  • A company in Michigan specializes in tearing cars apart and evaluating the manufacturing quality. The Tesla report, though not terrible, was not good either, especially from a profitability assessment standpoint.
  • Musk bought $20 million more Tesla stock.
  • A Tesla “skeptic” is surprised by how much he enjoyed riding the new model 3.
  • Tesla plans another tent at California manufacturing facility.
  • Record deliveries take place in the third quarter.

Interest Rates

Some believe that interest rates have finally halted their descent and are now beginning ascent. One can hope. Rates have been depressed because of the Quantitative Easing, or bond purchases by the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world. The 30-year treasury reached 3.40%, and the 10-year reached 3.23% in October. The lows were reached in July 2016 when the 30-year was 2.09% and the 10-year was 1.35%. The Fed Funds Rate target range stands at 2.00-2.25% with an expected Fed raise again in December.

Since interest rates have been low for nearly a decade, we thought we would remind readers what interest rates once were. In the five years preceding (we use October 2002 to October 2007) the financial crisis, which prompted the current “unusual” interest rate environment, the 30-year treasury averaged 4.86% with a high of 5.59% reached on 14 May 2004. During that same period, the 10-year treasury averaged 4.38% with a high of 5.32% reached on 13 June 2007.

Remember: As an example, earning 5.00% is twice as much as earning 2.50%. Imagine what savers could do with higher interest rates.


SoftBank, a Japan-based telecom, is exploring investing more in WeWork, a commercial real estate company that specializes in leasing shared work spaces. SoftBank directly owns 20% of WeWork through a $4.4 billion equity investment made into WeWork in 2017. Now, SoftBank is exploring taking a majority stake in WeWork for as much as $15 to 20 billion, using its $100 billion private fund called Vision Fund, which has the backing of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi wealth funds. Interestingly, a lot of top valuations in the venture capital/tech investing space have been made by SoftBank and its Vision Fund. Here, with WeWork, SoftBank is outdoing itself with an even higher valuation. Its own balance stands to benefit from the new valuation mark at the expense of the Vision Fund balance sheet. All of this is for a company that occupies some of the priciest commercial properties in the world (New York City as prime example) and does not actually own the real estate. WeWork is in a spread business, leasing raw office space at a lower rate and leasing finished office space at a higher rate. They have yet to make money, as improving raw office space does not come cheaply. Risks abound, but it is apparently worth much more than $20 billion.


Are electric vehicle companies and investors thinking through upstream risks? We were struck by the situation brewing in Chile, reported by Reuters. There are two major miners in the world – SQM and Albemarle. These miners operate mines within three miles of each other in the world’s important lithium production regions. The region is in Chile’s Atacama Desert. One of the major miners is accused of using more water from the underground brine water pool than legally allotted, and they have done this (allegedly) for years. The implications could be shorter mine life, and it could cause the government to limit future permitting until the water naturally replenishes, if ever. That means lithium supply could be at risk of constrained supply, which would likely cause prices to rise and increase the cost of producing batteries. The risks are obviously present, but the outcomes remain unknown.

Loss Loan Rule

Banks, according to WSJ, are fighting the new loan loss accounting rule by taking it, through lobby, to congress. Note, accounting rules are proposed, commented on, written, and implemented by Financial Accounting Standards Board (or FASB). The new rule has taken on the name Current Expected Credit Loss Model and the acronym CECL (pronounced Cecil). The primary result of the rule is that companies issuing credit would be required to model credit risks and record expected losses when the loan is made – and over the course of the loans as expectations shift. Banks are “livid” because this is a bit different than they have been doing things. According to the WSJ article, banks claimed “the rule will make them less able to make loans”. Accounting is accounting. If the bank expects that steep losses up front would preclude the bank from lending, Ballast wonders why the bank would be prepared to make the loan even without CECL.

If, like us, you like the backstory of how things work then here is the expanded explanation of the absurdity of the banking industry response now, after years of lead time. Don’t worry, we have left out the accounting jargon.

Many users of financial statements have held the position that loss recognition standards were too loose prior to the financial crisis, and that is why the bottom fell out from underneath the institutions that found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009. However, the process to craft a revised loan loss standard actually began as a joint project with the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) in 2005. The IASB issued a proposed standard in 2009, and the FASB proposed their own standard a few months later. The FASB claimed they received a lot of negative feedback from users of US GAAP financial statements on the IASB proposal so they drafted their own proposal.  There were a few iterations of drafts and redrafts for the next few years, but eventually the FASB issued an Exposure Draft (ED) in late 2015. An ED is released to the public, and anyone who wants to comment on how they feel about the proposed rules – in any regard – can submit comments directly to the FASB. Note that the FASB holds open meetings in which they discuss staff recommendations on new potential accounting guidance prior to when an ED is even issued. Then, in April 2016, the final credit loss standard was voted on by the FASB and published in June 2016, with an effective date for public companies for periods beginning after December 15, 2019.

Emerging Markets

In crisis? The IMF says it’s possible. We’ve already commented on Argentina. Now Pakistan has requested emergency loans from the IMF. Other countries are struggling. Ballast continues to monitor.

Security Breach

A computer chip, difficult to detect, made its way into critical servers and was able to back-door hack systems that were previously thought to be highly secure. It’s a good read at BusinessWeek.

02/2018 Market Commentary

Market Risk and Volatility

The life insurance industry is being blamed for the market volatility experienced in February due to their volatility-controlled products. Much of this rests on variable annuities, which experienced trouble during the financial crisis. Since then, life insurance companies have acted to “de-risk” products so as to minimize their balance sheet risks. But risk is only transferred and/or not correctly evaluated (bottled up even). Sure, volatility-controlled products and practices erupted in February, but it is hard to blame what happened on the life insurance companies alone. They exasperated the results, but they did not cause them. It is akin to blaming sellers for lower prices  (it is a required condition of lower prices but not a fundamental cause). The cause, as we will find out, is that market values are high, and investors became fickle.

Insurance and Reinsurance

Two large insurance and reinsurance groups have received takeover interest. Swiss Re has been approached by a large Japan-based investment vehicle about a substantial minority investment. On the other hand, XL Group has received strong interest of possible acquisition from Allianz. Much of recent mergers and acquisitions were between small and mid-sized insurers and reinsurers. Swiss Re and XL Group are mid- to large-sized. Such continued acquisition interest underscores the amount of capital that remains committed to the sector. As previously noted, Ballast does not believe broad insurance market hardening will occur until capital is flushed. This can come in two forms (1) capital market losses (investments on balance sheet) and (2) insured losses. More than likely, this insurance market will require both, but we remain tuned in as opportunities are likely to arise along the way.

General Electric

We wrote about GE previously, and February proved to be another interesting chapter for the company. The SEC announced that an investigation, management cut forecasts on accounting changes, and a major board shake-up are all in the works.


We read a hedge fund piece suggesting that a fundamental business shift would be triggered by a credit ratings downgrade. GE sells long-term service contracts on its industrial products. Purchasers are sensitive to long-term credit ratings because they want the counter party to be around in X number of years to perform on the contract. The hedge fund suggested that a downgrade would be catalyzed by recent deterioration at GE, and sales would suffer following downgrade, creating an air pocket. The implication was that GE now needs to raise equity capital (something GE does not want to do) to prevent a rating downgrade. The case presented was interesting, but we disagreed. To better understand, we contacted the hedge fund and investor relations of GE. Neither have responded yet but we continue to follow GE with interest.

China / Anbang

Many are not likely to recognize the name Anbang, but it is one of the largest finance and insurance groups in China. It was fast growing thanks to the help of Wealth Management Products, a risky financial product used across the country to finance China’s rapid growth. During February, Anbang was taken over by China’s insurance regulator because of market risks it posed on the economy. Observers called it too big to fail. Either way, we see this as an important moment. As one of the largest insurers in China (and certainly not the only one to extensively use the risky products) we think China is crossing over into challenging waters as they attempt to wring out the market excesses while maintaining stability. We are not convinced that an insolvent market as big as this one can be made solvent without reverberations elsewhere.


Another month, another takedown by Amazon. Walmart reported disappointing online performance, and the stock price reacted by falling 10% in a day, which is a very large move for a company as big and stable as Walmart. This caught our attention, but like our commentary on the broad market pullback, Walmart’s price drop was hardly meaningful. It reversed price gains back to November 2017 levels, at which time the stock price jumped 11% on encouraging online sales. The market giveth and the market taketh away… We are still interested in Walmart so long as the price continues to decline and the dividend yield becomes more attractive.

Inflation & Interest Rates

Popular narrative right now is for rising inflation and, as a result, much higher yields. We disagree with the former and doubt the latter.


First, inflation. Inflation has fallen and barely budged since the financial crisis despite herculean efforts of central banks. The only major inflation evident was through asset prices but not very much through consumer or producer prices. The collapse of commodity prices was no help, nor has it created deflation. So, now that the commodity complex appears to have been stabilized, fears have renewed at the (slightest) advance in inflation metrics that inflation will take hold, and interest rates will have to rise dramatically. For a variety of reasons, we think this line of thought is unfounded, and such commentary is inconsistent.


Then, rates. The Federal Reserve appears to be determined to raise rates at the front-end of the curve (includes overnight loans or t-bills) and will no doubt accomplish this. The Federal Reserve will get much help from the Treasury, which now must issue a lot of debt in coming years to fund the US Government’s deficit – expected to be close to $1 trillion (that’s a ‘T’) in 2018. The Treasury has indicated much of this funding will be done with short-term debt. But the long-end of the curve (includes 10- and 30-year bonds) are less likely to move substantially higher. (They could, but we are skeptical.) The major bond market participants in the long-end of the curve are pensions, insurance companis, et al, and their business and underlying demographic situation is unlikely to change near-term – (That is, pensions still need to be invested with the long-term stability of fixed income and life insurance companies continue to grow retirement & income protection products that rely heavily on the security fixed income provides.) If it exists anywhere, the supply and demand imbalance in fixed income markets that could drive rates higher, in our opinion, rests on the front-end of the curve. This is not worrisome to us.


Despite our beliefs that rising inflation is not yet around the corner and that long-term rates are unlikely to rise substantially in the near-term, we are adding positions to portfolios that we think provide protection against either condition, while still rewarding the investor in the interim.


We have discussed Teva nearly every month of the newsletter. February should be not different. Two things occurred (1) Teva reported full-year 2017 financial results that showed revenues falling faster than many analysts expected and (2) Standard & Poors finally joined peers Moody’s and Fitch in junking the credit ratings. S&P downgraded the credit ratings two notches from BBB- to BB. The shift to “junk” ratings is important because it leads to greater constraints on raising capital, and Teva is highly leveraged.


One other noteworthy Teva event during February was that Berkshire Hathaway purchased a chunk of Teva’s stock. When Berkshire (as equity holder) is subordinate to Ballast (as bond holder) we feel even better about our thesis.