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.

Half-year fiscal report card for Canada

The September update of the Fiscal Monitor is out. This is the half-year mark for fiscal reporting in Canada. We have as follows, for the first half-year comparing 2008-2009 vs. 2009-2010:

1. Personal income tax collection down 7.5%. This is slightly offset by income tax reductions (by virtue of raising the thresholds for the lower two tax brackets).

2. Corporate income tax collection down 39.5%. This is slightly offset by corporate tax reductions, but this shows that corporate profitability has fallen off a cliff between years.

3. GST collection down 17.9%. This is a good indicator of consumer spending.

4. EI Benefits paid up 50.1%. Probably the best proxy measure for unemployment – these people in the future, assuming they do not get jobs, will be paying less in personal income taxes as well.

5. Budgetary balance of a $28.6 billion deficit for the half-year. Extrapolating this out for a full year will result in a $57 billion dollar deficit for the year, slightly higher than the government’s projection of $55 billion.

Oddly enough, public debt charges (i.e. interest on debt) is down from $16.5 billion to $15.1 billion which is because of the very low interest rates offered by the Bank of Canada on public debt. As the term structure of interest rates is severely low at this point in time, it makes one wonder what will occur if or when interest rates start to rise again. Right now the Bank of Canada will happily take your money at 1.12% for 2 years. It will also take your money for 3.22% for 10 years. At this moment, the Bank of Canada should be trying to sell as much long-dated debt as they can, as they are receiving exceptionally low rates.

John Jansen a true financial journalist

Across the Curve was written by John Jansen, and it was something that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. He was quantitative, and factual and to the point. It was very good writing.

Probably a recent highlight for the author was when he got invited to a meeting with a few other bloggers to a meeting with some senior US Treasury officials, and ended up on television for an interview shortly after on Canadian business television.

Anyhow, he got a job with TD Securities and will presumably not be allowed to write about his views on the market, which is tragic, but I wish him the best of luck in his job.

US-Canadian Dollar Pair

This might not be the smartest move, but I have bought a chunk of US dollars for Canadian dollars at 1.0525 (0.9501 is the reciprocal). It has increased my US currency exposure from 25% to 28%. While this is not a huge shift, I am getting somewhat concerned that the carry trade (i.e. investors selling T-bills, selling the US currency for other currency and then basically getting an interest-free loan) is so baked into the current market price that any perturbation that will emerge in the market will cause a huge cover. One perturbation that we saw was back in the July 2008 to March 2009 financial crisis where investors wanted the safety and security of cold, hard US cash.

While I do not think such an outcome is likely, I do think that the current perception that US money is toilet paper is not quite warranted – to reinforce this idea, go to a Walmart Supercenter and see how far your money goes.

Income Trust Taxation in 2011

In Canada, income trust distributions will be taxable to the level where the trust would be roughly equivalent for them to convert into a corporation and distribute dividends from after-tax income. Because a simple corporate structure is easier to understand for most investors, in addition to being cheaper to maintain, it is likely that most conventional income trusts (except for the REITs, which will still have the same tax-free exemptions as existing trusts do) will convert into corporations before the conversion deadline.

There are a whole litany of tax issues involved with conversion (which can be read in the explanatory notes in the July 2008 legislative proposal), but the salient detail is that income trusts by the end of December 2012 will have to convert to corporations in order to prevent a deemed disposition (i.e. tax consequences for unitholders).

In the meantime, trusts will have a distribution tax, both a federal and provincial component. The Federal component will be based on the large corporation tax rate (16.5% in 2011; 15% in 2012 and beyond), while the provincial component will be based on a weighted average where the trust earns its distributable income and the respective province’s large corporate tax rate. In BC, this will be 10%. So in 2011, a trust that operates in BC will have a 26.5% distribution tax put on its distributions; the way to calculate “equivalent distributable income” is by dividing the pre-2011 distribution by one plus the distribution tax.

So for example, if an income trust distributed 100 cents a year of income in 2010, the equivalent will be $1.00*(1/(1+0.265)) or $0.7905/share in 2011; in 2012 this would be $1.00*(1/(1+0.25)) or $0.80/share.

It should be noted that the income coming from trusts will be considered eligible dividends in 2011 and beyond; as a result, the tax treatment to Canadians will more than offset the loss in trust income. At the low tax bracket, the marginal rate for a BC resident for trust income will be 20.06%, while eligible dividend income will be -9.42%. So a $100 trust distribution will end up as $79.94 after taxes for a low income earner, while a $79.05 eligible distribution will yield $89.50 after taxes. At the top tax bracket, $100 of income will end up as $56.30 after taxes, while a $79.05 eligible distribution will end up as $60.15 after taxes.

The take-home message is that once 2011 rolls around, there is going to be no excuse whatsoever to keep income trusts inside the RRSP; they should be immediately removed and placed into a regular taxable account. Alternatively they can be placed inside the TFSA, but one would surrender the tax benefit of the dividend tax credit.

Why analyst calls are useless

Everybody that is seasoned in the market know that analyst research and projections are designed with the purpose of providing institutional business to the underlying investment brokers. As a result, you very rarely hear analysts giving sell recommendations, unless if the firm in question has already burnt its bridges with the company in question.

At best, this research usually reflects the market consensus, plus or minus a few cents on the earnings per share projection. Analyst research is never the basis for making a trade – instead, it is a quasi-benchmark for how you think the company in question will really perform.

When an analyst is brave enough to see a company that is clearly overvalued and makes a sell recommendation, he is usually looking for an exit out of the firm. For example, a brave analyst called Brian Kennedy made a sell call on a company called CardioNet. He was basically forced out of the company, but his negative projections turned out to be correct.

Note if you cut-and-paste the URL into Google, you can view the entire article.

The moral of the story is that analyst research has a function; but the incentives that analysts have serve the investment banking arms of their companies. Anybody doing very sharp research is most likely trading on that information rather than releasing it to the public, as it is far more profitable to trade with superior information than to try to drum up investment banking business.

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.

August 2009 Fiscal Monitor Released

The Ministry of Finance released the August 2009 Fiscal Monitor today, which is the best at-a-glance fiscal picture of Canada. I covered the July month in a previous post.

The extra month of data continues to print a grim picture – while personal income taxes in the five months between April and August have dropped about 5% (and this does not account for the fact that the government has been reducing income taxes by increasing the basic rate and also increasing the lower two income thresholds in the previous federal budget), corporate taxes continue to fall off a cliff, down 37% in the equivalent period. Only 2% of that is explained by the small decrease in the corporate tax rate between periods.

On the consumer spending side, GST collections actually increased 6% on a month-to-month basis (which is relatively surprising), but the net collections over the five month period has been down about 20%.

Unemployment insurance benefit payments, another barometer of job loss, is up 54% over the equivalent 5 month period last year.

The total fiscal deficit for the 5 month period is $23.7 billion dollars, which if extrapolated, will suggest a total deficit for the fiscal year of approximately $57 billion.

The two take-home messages of this report is that corporate profits in Canada have dropped dramatically; paradoxically, the phased in reductions in income tax that will occur over the next few years (19% to 18% effective 2010; 18% to 16.5% effective 2011; and 16.5% to 15% effective 2012) will have less of an impact and will likely cause more investment to come into the country. The other message is that personal income tax collection seems to be down slightly, but unemployment is rising, but people continue to spend. It makes one wonder how much of a pool of savings there is for people to draw on when they are not working.

Inevitably, Canada’s fiscal situation is stronger than in the USA. If Canada were running deficits equivalent to the level of the USA’s economic output, we would be on track to run a $180 billion deficit for fiscal 2010.