Dubai World default a lesson on foreign investing

I do not have any exposure to equities or debt outside of Canada and the USA, but I have been watching with fascination the fallout with respect to the default of Dubai World. Although most of Dubai’s investor base is European, it should have a small ripple effect around the world in absolute terms, but in psychological terms should reinforce that unmitigated speculation in real estate properties in might have adverse consequences in the future.

The parallel analogies between China (which one could argue has sufficient economic growth to warrant such capital investment) and Vancouver (which continues to mystify almost anybody that tries to perform a rational valuation on most properties) is obvious. However, even Vancouver does not have the excesses that Dubai did, mainly valuing waterfront properties so highly that they are to be reclaimed from the sea (or here). Looking at these projects makes me wonder what the monthly “strata fee” would be for one of these strips of land – just the costs to make sure that your island is not reclaimed by the Persian Gulf must be huge.

Financially, what is more complicated for investors is the lack of any idea of how subordinated their debt is, and what guarantees, if any, are embedded in the debt financing that was used to build such structures. The closest governmental analogy is that Dubai is a municipal government, while Dubai is one of seven divisions of the senior government, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That said, the UAE (and the government of Dubai) made it quite clear that they will not be guaranteeing any debt of Dubai World, which means investors are hooped and can only claim whatever embedded asset value there is in the properties. This is even assuming the corporation follows whatever legal rules that are available to foreign investors in the UAE or Dubai.

It is these legislative nightmares that keep me clear away from foreign investments. In order to have a true grasp of the risk that one takes while investing, one needs to know the legal framework of the jurisdiction in question. Good luck trying to figure out Dubai World.

That said, China has gotten to the point where one might wish to more intensively study how their corporate legal structures work – from what I can tell, signed contracts and written documents are guidelines, opposed to binding, which makes analyzing social frameworks a much more relevant avenue than here in North America.

Limited Brands Reports Q3 results

I will begin this post by saying I don’t understand the shopping mall experience. Perhaps because of my gender, I just don’t understand why people, usually women, like to “go shopping”.

However, I can understand what goes before my eyes, and that is people shop. I might not understand fashion retail, but I understand the economics of it – something about the marketing works. It gets people to pay more for a product that inherently has very low marginal cost to purchase. The embedded marketing costs, however, are huge.

Earlier this year, I invested in some corporate debt of Limited Brands (NYSE: LTD) – the 2033 series of debentures, which has a coupon of 6.95%. Investors back then assumed that retail was going to get thrown out the window along with the rest of the economy and especially for a discretionary retail shop like Limited Brands (their primary brand name is Victoria’s Secret), droves of people would be not shopping for lingerie. Or will they? According to their last quarterly report, they are on track to bringing in about $500-600M in free cash flow, depending on how the Christmas season works out.

For 35 cents on the dollar, I figured that the debt would be a good buy. It was tough to rationalize how being rewarded 20% interest a year (plus another 4% capital appreciation) under the assumption that Limited Brands would not blow up could lose money. And indeed, it has not lost capital – the same debt is trading for around 71 cents if you shop around carefully. This will still net you 10% a year in coupon payments, and about 1.5% a year capital appreciation compounded over the next 23.8 years.

If you look at their balance sheet, they have about $2.9 billion in debt, covered by $968M in cash, and positive earnings. Although I have no idea whether the retail chain over the next 23.8 years will survive, at least right now it is looking quite good.  The following is the debt maturity schedule from the Q2-2009 SEC filing, which shows they have staggered out their debt financing fairly well:

15. Long-term Debt

The following table provides the Company’s long-term debt balance as of May 2, 2009January 31, 2009 and May 3, 2008:

May 2,
January 31,
May 3,
(in millions)
Term Loan due August 2012. Variable Interest Rate of 5.18% as of May 2, 2009 $ 750 $ 750 $ 750
$700 million, 6.90% Fixed Interest Rate Notes due July 2017, Less Unamortized Discount 698 698 698
$500 million, 5.25% Fixed Interest Rate Notes due November 2014, Less Unamortized Discount 499 499 499
$350 million, 6.95% Fixed Interest Rate Debentures due March 2033, Less Unamortized Discount 350 350 350
$300 million, 7.60% Fixed Interest Rate Notes due July 2037, Less Unamortized Discount 299 299 299
$300 million, 6.125% Fixed Interest Rate Notes due December 2012, Less Unamortized Discount 299 299 299
Credit Facility due January 2010 15
5.30% Mortgage due August 2010 2 2 2
Total 2,897 2,897 2,912
Current Portion of Long-term Debt (7 )
Total Long-term Debt, Net of Current Portion $ 2,897 $ 2,897 $ 2,905

Another similar corporation that is debt-free is Abercrombie and Fitch (NYSE: ANF), which seems to defy everybody’s expectations during recessions by coming back from the financial netherworld to make insane amounts of money. I can see the appeal of Victoria’s Secret – sex sells – but Abercrombie? When walking into the two stores to do some ‘consumer research’, I just don’t understand what keeps these names afloat in the retail fashion world.

However, I can at least invest and make some cash off of it while the going is good. Will I know when it is time to liquidate? Who knows.