First Uranium will be an interestnig story

Ever since the environmental permit for their tailings mine got revoked by the South African government, First Uranium equity has traded lower. Their debentures have also traded from roughly 75 cents to 71 cents.

Today, however, they will likely trade lower because of First Uranium’s corporate update. In it contains the following words:

The announcement of the withdrawal of the EA has not only delayed construction of the TSF, it has also disrupted certain well-advanced corporate financing opportunities, which, along with the slower than expected production buildup at the Ezulwini Mine, would, if alternative financing is not obtained, severely compromise the Company’s financial position. The Company is now reviewing strategic alternatives, and is engaged in discussions with respect to alternative financing opportunities.

My guess is that the common stock will trade down about 10% on Tuesday and the debentures will trade down another 3 cents. The company will likely have to sell more equity in future gold sales (as they have done previously), or equity in their company in a heavily dilutive offering. Management does not own too much common stock and is likely to dilute through equity to reduce the influence of Simmer and Jack.

The latest financial update from First Uranium was at September 30, 2009. The debentures are CAD$150M and they would be first in line (after a $22M facility) in the event of a default.

The valuation of First Uranium, as its operational woes continue, have to increasingly be looked with respect to what the asset value of operations would capture in the event of a bankruptcy proceeding. As long as the price of gold does not crash, there is value in the operations and debenture holders will likely be able to still make a fair recovery.

Most of the value of the debentures, assuming they are paid, will be in the form of capital gains so keeping these outside the RRSP is likely the best option – at 65 cents on the dollar, your split will be 1 part income to 3 parts capital gains, assuming they mature. Any resulting income will be taxed at around 62% of the income produced from the investment.

Debt and confidence

John Mauldin summarizes a part of the book This Time is Different by repeating that a sudden drop in confidence is what drives economic crises. A lack of confidence is more pronounced in debt crises because if the market collapses for debt renewals, you will have to default, which triggers a worse cascade of events.

It is also difficult to predict when the confidence is lost, but when it does occur, it is usually sudden, as witnessed in the 2008 financial crisis.

Whether another financial-type crash will occur in North American markets is up for debate, but whenever such a crash happens, one is best to brace for impact in terms of one’s portfolio and personal financial situation – high debt leverage is the big killer.

Frontera Copper Note Exchange

Frontera Copper was acquired some time ago by a Mexican company and at that time its common shares were delisted. The company still had some notes outstanding, however. They were defaulted on by the company mainly due to financial issues that resulted from the acquired mine assets not being worth what the acquiring company believed they were worth.

There are two series of notes, both senior unsecured notes, with a coupon of 10% and a maturity date of June 15, 2010 and March 15, 2011. They are trading around 67 cents on the dollar. The company has proposed an exchange offer whereby people can tender their notes and receive 90 cents of face value (if tendered early) of new notes earning 10% interest, maturing December 2012. The terms also include that if copper goes below US$2.90/pound, the notes will give 6% interest. Also, the notes will be repaid in 25% installments, starting 18 months after they are issued, and can be extended by another 6 months if copper is below US$2.35/pound. Finally, if the notes are exchanged, unpaid interest on the previous notes will be paid.

The new notes will also be secured by a second-in-line interest on the mine assets after the bank loan, but this security is likely not worth too much.

The only kicker is that the new notes will not be exchange traded.

I am not seriously interested in these notes or the exchange offer, but thought it was an interesting offer. The fact that the market price for these notes plummeted when they announced this offer suggests that the bond market will not be expecting they will be paid in full, despite the effective 13-14% current yield they will receive after the exchange offer. Also, liquidity risk is a serious consideration with respect to the untradable nature of the notes. Finally, the international nature of the notes in question (essentially being secured by a Mexican operation and a Mexican corporation) leaves jurisdictional risk issues in case if they decide to default – who do you end up suing? A worthless BC shell corporation when the assets are held in a Mexican corporation?

It are risk factors like these that made me pass up the risk on this offer, but it might be for some other people to analyze and make a killing if the deal actually works for noteholders.

Fixed income comparisons

There are some exchange traded products that are functionally identical but have different market prices. The reason why the prices are different is because of the individual demand/supply characteristics of the securities and individual liquidity preferences – for example, if two issues were otherwise identical in maturity date, coupon and seniority, if one issue was $200M outstanding, while the other was $20M outstanding, you would expect the $20M one to trade for less because of liquidity preference.

Right now on my radar screen, I see 7% coupon, 2028 maturity trust preferreds (backed by corporate senior debt, par value $25) trade at bid/ask 19.1/19.41 for one issue and 19.70/19.94 for another issue. Using the midpoint, we have a 9.83% yield to maturity for the first, and a 9.51% yield to maturity for the second.

The only reason why I am not hammering this difference is because they are non-marginable and you cannot short sell them.

Even more complicated is another issue that has identical characteristics, except it gives off a 6.5% coupon. At the current bid/ask of 17.37/17.50, we get a yield to maturity of 10.29%, which makes it more of a bargain than the other two securities – as long as you are willing to take your returns in the form of capital gains instead of coupon payments. In Canada, for taxable accounts, this is favoured. The cost of this, however, is that lower coupon issues are more sensitive to interest rate changes.

What is interesting is that if the securities in question were zero-coupon, with a 10.29% yield to maturity they would be priced about $3.965/share, while at a 9.51% yield to maturity, they would be $4.531/share, a 14.3% difference. It pays to shop around for your fixed income!

Handbook of Fixed Income Securities

I borrowed from the library the “Handbook of Fixed Income Securities” (Fabozzi) and while I didn’t go through it cover-to-cover (it is as thick as a phone book), I did find his style very good, especially with examples. The art of determining what risks you are taking in the fixed income market is highly quantitative and without the quantitative backing, the benefit you may get out of the book would be limited.

History of stock market crashes

October 28-29, 1929: Marked the beginning of the great depression – although the worst of it was only a couple years later, this was a very powerful signal that something wasn’t right in the US economy. This was characterized mainly by a lot of margin debt purchasing and rampant speculation on equities.

1973 to 1974: Marked the beginning of the rise of OPEC, and concerns about the world supply of crude oil in general. Also marked the beginning of the modern currency exchange systems we see today. This was in the middle of a recession and a period of high inflation (these two together are referred to as “stagflation”) and is the worst possible combination for equity markets.

October 19, 1987 (aka “Black Monday”): Probably the only “true” random market crash, potentially caused with inexperience with complexity through computer program trading, and also the Treasury Secretary mumbling about having to devalue US currency. Federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was also new on the job at this time. The US recovered despite having lost 22.7% of its market value for the day. Hong Kong got killed by 45.8%; in all cases buying this crash would have been fruitful. Easy to say when looking at past charts!

October 13, 1989: A small random market crash (6.1% loss on the S&P 500) for no particular reason at all.

October 27, 1997: The S&P lost 6.9% due to the Asian currency crisis and panic selling. This was at the time of the beginning of the run-up in technology issues. Although this was somewhat interrupted by the Long Term Capital Management fiasco in 1998, equities never looked back until February 2000, where they peaked.

September 11, 2001: The largest terrorist attack on US soil, and the biggest death count since the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941. Equities dropped when markets re-opened a week later, mainly due to insurance and financial firms that had to perform some massive re-balancing after liquidating assets. This would prove to be a local bottom, but not a true bottom until in 2002 when markets finally reached their lows for the decade (up until the 2008 financial crisis).

October 2007 to March 2009: Fresh in everybody’s memory, the financial crisis caused wholesale liquidations in major financial firms, such as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, etc. From peak to trough, the S&P 500 lost 56% of its value.

… and after this history lesson, will January 25, 2010 be on the books?

Obama wants to take out the stock market

Now that Barack Obama is done demolishing the US fiscal balance, he’s now going to work on demolishing the US stock market. Just a couple days after losing the Massachusetts senate election, the rumblings of the administration wanting to crack down on finance companies is hitting the pipeline, and we are seeing it in the form of rises in implied volatility. Here is a 5-day chart of the S&P 100 30-day implied volatility (otherwise called the VIX):

It will be very, very interesting to see how this gets played out. Volatility is good, as long as you can predict whether markets go volatile “up” or volatile “down”!

Fiscal Monitor Canada – November 2009

Canada released the November 2009 Fiscal Monitor, which is not too different than the October release. However, the big exception is collections from GST, which is a very good proxy for retail consumption – while October 2009 to October 2008 was down 8.5%, in November, it was up 16.6% from November 2008. On a year-to-date basis, in October it was down 16.5%, while in November it was down 12.0%, a remarkable improvement, but still down from fiscal 2008.

Is retail spending increasing in Canada, or is this just statistical noise?

All other metrics, including personal income tax collection (a proxy for employment as most of the taxes collected are through payroll deductions), corporate tax collections (a proxy for corporate profitability) and GST collection (a proxy for domestic consumption) are down.

The other comment is that for the 8 months of the year, the fiscal trajectory suggests the deficit will be about $54.4 billion.

Market timing – Half luck, half skill part 2

You never know what you’ll get once you get into a position. Psychologically, the first few days after one gets into a position is the time that one typically pays most attention to it, at the cost of ignoring the rest of your portfolio.

With the First Uranium debentures example, my execution in hindsight was horrible – they traded as low as 65 cents today. Assuming an execution at that price, it would have resulted in a current yield of 6.5% plus a capital gain of 19.7% annualized if they paid off at par. You add these two and it’s roughly 26% you are looking at annualized, again, assuming a payoff at par 2.5 years down the line.

It appears that this was some frightened investor (likely a fund) that dumped at the bid and wanted to get out of there – now the bid/ask is 68/72 cents.

Unfortunately, looking back at charts is rather useless in terms of market timing and the only question is whether the position is still worth as much as the existing market value thinks it is. I think the debentures are still the better risk, especially at 26%. There are significant operational issues, but there is so much capital locked up in the project that they’ll have to deliver for somebody – whether it’s the equity owners, or whether it’s the debt holders that may eventually take control of the firm.

Peer to Peer Lending – Prosper / Lending Club – Explaining the risk

A preliminary note on dealing with people in finance:

No sooner than 24 hours after I posted about how Peer to Peer lending is quite risky, I receive an email from Mickie Boone, who is the director of Public Relations of Lending Club. I do not believe I am breaching any confidentiality of email when she stated that:

Lending Club has always implemented tighter credit policies and invested heavily in collections, and as a result is now 3 times bigger than Prosper ($7.1M in Dec. for Lending Club against $2.2M for Prosper). Our historical default rate across ALL loans is around 3% and we produced an average of 9.68% net annualized returns.

She must be doing her homework by having good Google Alerts set to inform her of anybody writing about her employer or her competitors. Although the email was clearly marketing material, it did not feel like spam and was well crafted although it felt like she has sent something similar to many other writers on the internet. In fact, by me writing about this, she probably succeeded in increasing exposure to her employer, which is her job.

In her email, she also stated that she desired to speak with me, and to let her know when I was available to do so. After my horrific experience with exempt-offering limited partnerships (see “Worst Move” on He won’t play against the Kasparovs), one rule of mine that I religiously adhere to is to let the documentation speak, and to only let management’s words be colour in determining the credibility of the firm’s leadership.

When dealing with people from a financial perspective, you tend to take a liking to them. This is why I will never make a good financial adviser – they make their money through sales commissions, and in order to do that, you need to appear to be likable to gain clients that taking a liking to yourself. I am not a likable person when it comes to finance. I already felt like I knew Ms. Boone right after reading her email. The problem is that doing so clouds my financial judgment which is detrimental in making good financial decisions. The documentation should do most of the speaking.

Lending Club vs. Prosper:

Lending Club’s website is slightly easier to get information from than Prosper. In addition, Lending Club doesn’t make the mistake of having to register to get certain information (e.g. for Prosper’s secondary marketplace). Lending Club also has their entire loan portfolio available for a convenient 10 megabyte Excel download, something I don’t see on Prosper. They also give good metrics with respect to loan performance, while with Prosper, you have a dig a little deeper, but at least not have to log in to get some quantitative results.

Both sites openly share their SEC prospectus on their sites, or you can read them where you would normally read SEC filings. Both sites also have similar cost structures (to the money lender, 1% of interest and principal).

In particular, Lending Club touts the following chart…

The chart is annotated with the following description:

A $10,000 investment in Lending Club notes in June 2007 is worth more today than the same investment in any other major asset class**

** Based on Average Net Annualized Returns from June 2007 (inception) to October 2009. This comparison does not reflect differences in liquidity. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

… this chart clearly showing their outperformance to the market, right? Not so – a junk-of-junk bond portfolio (which is essentially what Lending Club and Prosper deal with) should have a volatility that is at least that of a short duration high-yield bond index and most definitely not mirror that of the short term treasury graph.

Be very careful of straight-line performance graphs, and this is no exception. You’ll notice even the 1-3 year treasury bond index exhibits some variation in returns, while Lending Club’s graph is nearly as straight as an arrow.

Is Lending Club’s loan portfolio vastly superior than Prosper’s?

The answer to this question is no. The reason deals with the carrying value of the loan. It assumes that loans that are not in default have a carrying value of par. As there is no secondary market for the loans on Lending Club’s books, current loans must be carried at par value even when the credit risk would result in a significant downward valuation from par.

There are two ways to default on a loan – stop making interest payments, or by not paying the principal when it is due. Lending Club’s numbers properly reflect the default rate of borrowers not making interest payments, but does not reflect the future default rates of the failure to pay principal.

Prosper has data available for loans originated from November 1, 2005 to today. The loans have been standardized for three years. 91.1% of current loans (by dollar value) are current, which means 8.9% of loans are non-current. These reflect the failure to pay interest.

In terms of principal collection, 22.9% of loans have been charged off. This is netted by 0.5% of collection agency collections, leaving a net charge off of 22.4%.

Lending Club has 9.1% of loans that are non-current ($5,559,632 late/defaulted vs. $63,651,765 funded), which is very close to Prosper’s 8.9% non-current loan rate.

Here’s the big reporting problem – Lending Club has only been in operation for 2.5 years. If they are giving out three year loans, then none of their existing loan portfolio has reached maturity yet (minus pre-payments), which means that the principal payment default risk has not been represented in their performance statistics. Prosper’s data runs back 4.2 years.

My guess is that once Lending Club’s loans start reaching maturity that the default rate will start to skyrocket, comparable to Prosper’s net 22% charge-off rate of their entire loan portfolio.

If there is any way I could short Lending Club’s portfolio at their existing carrying value, I would place a fairly heavy bet on it. Unfortunately, there is no way to do this. If my hypothesis is correct, my prediction is that in 1.7 years that Lending Club’s blended loan portfolio will look closer to Prosper’s, which currently has a 38.4% default rate on historical loans (for matured loans, Prosper is at a rate of $42,260,196 in net charge-offs vs. $110,000,706 loaned).

To say that Lending Club has a “historical default rate of 3%” is true, but the key word is “historical” – this will rise very sharply and this is why you don’t see Prosper advertising default rates – because it is ridiculously high. In order to be compensated for this risk, investors should rightfully be demanding rates that would make credit card vendors bashful.

Notwithstanding this analysis, there is educational value for people to invest small (and I mean small) amounts of money just to demonstrate how difficult it is to make money even when allured with the promise of high rates of return. Instead of a return on capital, the return of capital becomes paramount in the loan business.

I invite the management of either Prosper or Lending Club to comment here, rather than email. My analysis could be wrong, and would appreciate any corrections.