Posts from Investing

Why I Don't Like Stock Buybacks

RIM, the company that makes Blackberries, announced a weak quarter yesterday, and then announced they were initiating a stock buyback. I don't like stock buybacks and I figured this was an opportunity to explain why.

A decade ago, I was Chairman of the Board of a public company called It is still a public company but I have not been involved with the company for eight or nine years.

The company raised a huge amount of money in its IPO in 1999 and then after the market broke in early 2000, the stock was trading below its cash value. We talked about this at the board and decided to do a stock buyback.

For those who don't know what a stock buyback is, it is when a public company announces that they will be going into the market and start purchasing their own stock. When they purchase their stock, they typically retire it so that the number of shares outstanding goes down.

Stock buybacks are very popular with some investors as a way for a company to transfer value from the company back to the shareholders. It is like a dividend, except it is taxed as a capital gain, not ordinary income.

I don't remember the exact details of the buyback at but we started buying the stock and it kept going down. We kept buying it. But we were losing money on each buyback because we were overpaying for our own stock as it kept going down. 

I didn't understand what was going on. We had more cash than it would take to buy back every share in the company and yet the stock kept going down. We eventually reduced the number of shares outstanding by a pretty significant number. I don't remember what it was but it could have been as high as 25% of all the shares that were outstanding before we started the buyback.

Eventually the market came back and the stock rose. And the company started making money and its reported earnings per share were higher as a result.

But I don't view that stock buyback as successful. It didn't fundamentally change the company in any way. We just gave back a lot of cash to the investors.

This was all happening in 2000 and 2001. If I think about what we could have done with $25mm or more of cash in 2000 and 2001 to transform that company, there are so many obvious ideas in hindsight. We could have invested in new lines of business. We could have bought a bunch of companies. We could have made a number of moves that would have fundamentally changed the company. And we had a lot more cash than $25mm. But we let the cash sit in the bank and worse we gave a lot of it back to investors in a manner that did not do much for the company.

So if you go back to the reason that the stock kept going down as we were buying it back, I think I understand why now. With our stock buyback we were signaling to the market that we had no good ideas about how to spend that cash. We were signaling that we didn't see much of a future in our business. And smart investors bet against those kinds of companies, managements, and boards.

So when I saw the headline this morning that RIM was doing a buyback, I was saddened. I've been a Blackberry user since 1997 or 1998. RIM has been a great company that has driven so much innovation in the past fifteen years that has made my life better and the lives of many others better. I have to believe that if they got aggressive, they could find uses for all of that cash they are sitting on. I wish they would do that instead of buying back their stock.


Risk And Return

One of the most fundamental concepts in finance is that risk and return are correlated. We touched on this a tiny bit in one of the early MBA Mondays posts. But I'd like to dig a bit deeper on this concept today.

Here's a chart I found on the Internet (where else?) that shows a bunch of portfolios of financial assets plotted on chart.

Risk and return

As you can see portfolio 4 has the lowest risk and the lowest return. Portfolio 10 has the highest risk and the highest return. While you can't draw a straight line between all of them, meaning that risk and return aren't always perfectly correlated, you can see that there is a direct relationship between risk and return.

This makes sense if you think about it. We don't expect to make much interest on bank deposits that are guaranteed by the federal government (although maybe we should). But we do expect to make a big return on an investment in a startup company.

There is a formula well known to finance students called the Capital Asset Pricing Model which describes the relationship between risk and return. This model says that:

Expected Return On An Asset = Risk Free Rate + Beta (Expect Market Return – Risk Free Rate)

I don't want to dig too deeply into this model, click on the link on the model above to go to WIkipedia for a deeper dive. But I do want to talk a bit about the formula to extract the notion of risk and return.

The formula says your expected return on an asset (bank account, bond, stock, venture deal, real estate deal) is equal to the risk free rate (treasury bills or an insured bank account) plus a coefficient (called Beta) times the "market premium." Basically the formula says the more risk you take (Beta) the more return you will get.

You may have heard this term Beta in popular speak. "That's a high beta stock" is a common refrain. It means that it is a risky asset. Beta (another Wikipedia link) is a quantitative measure of risk. It's formula is:

Covariance (asset, portfolio)/Variance (portfolio)

I've probably lost most everyone who isn't a math/stats geek by now. In an attempt to get you all back, Beta is a measure of volatility. The more an asset's returns move around in ways that are driven by the underlying market (the covariance), the higher the Beta and the risk will be.

So, when you think about returns, think about them in the context of risk. You can get to higher returns by taking on higher risk. And to some degree we should. It doesn't make sense for a young person to put all of their savings in a bank account unless they will need them soon. Because they can make a greater return by putting them into something where there is more risk. But we must also understand that risk means risk of loss, either partial or in some cases total loss.

Markets get out of whack sometimes. The tech stock market got out of whack in the late 90s. The subprime mortgage market got out of whack in the middle of the last decade. When you invest in those kinds of markets, you are taking on a lot of risk. Markets that go up will at some point come down. So if you go out on the risk/reward curve in search of higher returns, understand that you are taking on more risk. That means risk of loss.

Next week we will talk about diversification. One of my favorite risk mitigation strategies.

#MBA Mondays

The Market Plunge

Yesterday the stock market dropped almost 1,000 points intraday before rebounding late in the day. Does this matter to the world of entrepreneurship and startups? Yes and No.

I’m no expert in the stock market but I read a bunch of experts blogs. I liked this from Steve Place:

High Frequency Trading broke, then saved the market

This will probably be the most controversial thing I’ll say. Quant firms have been keeping the market in a fairly low volatility state as they seek mean reversion and arbitrage strategies. By doing this they provide liquidity in the market for institutional players and funds. Their risk models are based on statistical distributions, behavioral finance, and other voodoo. When these models go out of wack, they can exacerbate the situation– that did occur in 2008 when liquidity dropped out of the system.

However, I feel that program trading (eventually) provided the liquidity for the snapback of this rally. If it weren’t for quants betting on extreme mean reversion, we would have held a much deeper selloff comparable to 1987. What evidence do I have of this? The sheer snapback of the price in such a short amount of time. It certainly wasn’t fundamental traders who all of a sudden found “value” in the market with a trailing P/E. The only sort of quick analysis that provides that kind of price action are done by non-humans at quantitative firms, and they saved the market from something much, much worse.

What Steve is saying is that computer driven trading drove the plunge and then drove the rebound. It was not human trading stocks that caused the price action. It was machines that had been programmed by humans.

There’s a lot of talk about machine to machine interaction coming into our lives. Yesterday afternoon at 2:45pm, we saw what that looks like. For the people who make their living trading in these markets, it was a sick feeling in their stomaches. For the rest of us, I don’t think this is too much of a big deal.

However, there are some big issues in the capital markets right now. From the bottom last April to the top a few weeks ago, the S&P 500 was up about 70% in a year. It was close to getting back to its pre meltdown high. Maybe the markets came back to far too fast. Its not like we are past all of our problems.

Money is cheap, too cheap. You can’t get a yield anywhere. As my friend Howard points out, junk bonds trade at 8%. Money is going to get more expensive soon. And that will not be good for the stock markets.

And then there’s the coming regulation of banks and brokers, which will likely put pressure on the stock markets. 

So what does matter to the world of entrepreneurs and startups is that stock markets may not have much more room to go up. I’ve been thinking that we are in for a long period of low public equity returns. I have no idea when that will happen but the macro environment just doesn’t look that great to me.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t make money with your startup and it doesn’t mean that you can’t make money in venture capital. The returns in startup land come mostly from taking nothing and turning it into something. If you take hard work, sweat equity, and a few million bucks of startup capital and turn that into a business producing $5mm a year of cash flow, then that is value creation of the old fashioned kind and it will work in any market environment.

But it also means to me that we should not be banking our business on the IPO exit. The public markets are a fickle thing. And it looks like machines are running that show now. I’m more optimistic about institutions turning to the private markets where capital is still traded by humans. I believe the secondary market where institutional private capital comes into the cap tables of startups and provides liquidity to founders, angels, and early stage investors is the next big thing for liquidity in the startup business and I am pleased to see that market continue to develop nicely.

So I don’t think the “crash of 2:45pm” as our friends from StockTwits are calling it matters much to those of us working in the world of startups, but it may be indicative of things to come (as markets tend to be) and it is worth figuring that part out.

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#stocks#VC & Technology

Save and Invest

Yesterday morning I attended the annual meeting of the NYC Partnership. The NYC Partnership is the "chamber of commerce" for NYC. Because NYC is one of the biggest commerce centers in the world, the NYC Partnership is a pretty interesting group and has lots of big name companies and execs involved in it.

The annual meeting yesterday featured talks by Lloyd Blankfein, Larry Summers, Mike Bloomberg, and Rupert Murdoch. I tweeted a bit from the meeting and you can see those tweets here (Dec 4th, 8:30am to 9:30am).

My favorite talk was Larry Summers' in which he addressed the administration's economic plans, priorities, and strategies.

At one point, Larry said that the US needs to "save, invest, and export more and the developing world needs to spend, borrow, and import more" (or something like that). It's certainly true that we can't continue with the model where the US borrows and goes deeply in debt to purchase goods and services provided by the developing world which then saves the money they earn and lends it to the US. That's how we've gotten into the mess we are in.

But I'd like to focus on "saving and investing". It has not been fashionable in this country to be a saver and an investor. It's been more fashionable to be a borrower and spender. Everyone wants to lease a fancy car or take out a big mortgage to buy a big home.

I'd like to see Obama make a big deal about the value of saving and investing. He's got great oratorical skills but he often talks in grand sweeping generalisms, like the "need to change." Well I think its time to get more specific about what needs to change. And if Obama were to start talking about the value of saving and investing every time he makes a speech, I think he could make saving and investing fashionable.

Saving is hard, particularly when you can barely make ends meet. But a "forced savings" plan can work for most people. Many companies do an automatic deduction for a 401k plan. It would be great if you could also do an automatic deduction and send the money to a mutual fund or money market fund. If everyone tried to save 5 to 10 percent of their take home pay, it would make a huge difference.

Investing is also important. Not gambling, not speculating. That is best left to the pros. Investing means taking some risk but not a lot of risk. It means putting money to work in the economy, and not just our economy, but the global economy. Mutual funds are a good way to do this. So are index funds. There are a lot of good places to get sound advice on how to invest wisely and patiently. We need to do more of that in this country.

Saving and investing has been part of the american culture in the past. It is still very much part of the culture among some parts of our citizenship. But too many of us have gone on a borrow and spending binge and it's time to get back to basics. And I'd like to see our President get out in front on this issue and lead the country back to a better way.

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#Politics#Random Posts