Tax Day. You Should Be Angry. Very Angry

I went down to the bank today and picked up a cashiers check to send off with my taxes, and I spent some time thinking about how docile and complacent American are when it comes to paying income taxes. Right wing, left wing, liberal, conservative, kook and anarchist alike we all stand in line and send Uncle Sam his hunk of flesh. We do it willingly and many of my fellow citizens regardless of what side of the political aisle they fall, believe it to be their Patriotic Duty to pay income taxes. It is the price we pay to live in the land that created such excellent opportunities for so many of us.

I am well aware that one of the reasons I send RBFC (really Big —- Check) to the feds several times a year is because I live in a country where I have been fortunate enough to earn a pretty good living doing what I love to do. That government, however, plays very little role in my success and in fact, most businessmen and entrepreneurs will tell you that the government is often one of the biggest obstacles to their success. It’s the people, the culture the entrepreneurial spirit, the heart of the American People that have allowed me to succeed. The Federal Government does not help people succeed by any stretch of the imagination. They do not create jobs. The land of the free that gives us all such a fantastic opportunity has very little to do with the tax dollars we send off to DC.

Think about where all that money is actually going. It’s going to fund agencies that oversee every detail of your life and pay the salaries of bureaucrats whose whole mission in life is to bring the weight of the Federal Government down on your head if you are unfortunate enough to fail to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. It is going to fund programs that you may or may not agree with, but you are paying for them anyway. You are paying the salaries of the 535 idiots in the Capital Building who use the shield of public service to grow their own power and wealth. You are paying for a random series of undeclared wars all over the planet.

You are most assuredly NOT paying to end poverty. President Johnson declared war on poverty in 1965 and poverty is winning. Childhood poverty rates have gone UP since 1965 in spite of all the trillions of dollars thrown at the problem.

You are NOT paying to improve the educations system. Is there anyone out there who really thinks the US educational system has gotten better since it was elevated to a cabinet-level position in 1979? It has gotten broadly worse and especially so in those areas where improvement is most needed, the inner cities and poor region of the country have gone into dramatic decline.

The Federal Government has two main purposes- the common defense and a level playing field for commerce. We have done an outstanding job of defense if a little over-zealous at times We do an okay job of commerce but when it comes to acting as a social regulator and charitable office that the Feds fail. Unfortunately, a staggering amount of money is spent in those capacities.

No matter how well intentioned you may believe the Federal Government is –and if you believe they are well intended you may need some therapy to deal with delusional behavior- the fact is they waste a lot of money. Consider these programs that were paid for with tax dollars over the past few years:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum

Sending Pakistani Children to Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama

$370 million annually in “prevented planting” crop insurance to farmers who cannot plant their crops in Seasonal Wetlands

$175,950 grant to research ways to better predict a person’s feelings about the decisions they make

$380k grant to study how social relationships in college contribute to weight-related problems

Army research study into the bomb-detecting abilities of elephants

$391,000 to a university to develop a website to teach children about dog bites.
$300,000 for a cheese heritage center

$1.2 million to assess the effects of microgravity on sheep

$2 million to hire a team of musicians and researchers to develop robotic music computers to perform a trumpet solo and jam with human musicians.

$1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate how a foam koozie keeps a can of cold beer cool on a hot day

$200,000 to academics to study foods that were part of the Tanzanian diet in the 1500s.

$458 million paid out inappropriately for travel expense reimbursements, including $1 million in travel
reimbursements for unauthorized spending at casinos and strip clubs

$375 million for Missile Defense Agency (MDA) targets that weren’t used or didn’t work

$84,680,000 for House office buildings under the Architect of the Capitol

$66,550,000 for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private, nonprofit foundation that aims to help grow and strengthen democratic institutions around the world

$5,000,000 for the Asia Foundation, which is “committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia

$48,500 to pen the definitive history of smoking in Russia over the past 130 years

$3.1 billion on vacation for federal employees placed on administrative leave

$65,473 to figure out what bugs do near a lightbulb

$35,000 for solar-powered beer

The sad part is that it took just very superficial research to uncover these wasteful items. There is a lot more than I haven’t even touched on. The Federal Government is a giant bureaucracy with all the faults and failings of giant institutions. It is heartless and often mindless, and it consumes an ever larger percentage of our national income. It is filled with narrow minded little men and women who are convinced that by issuing you instructions on how to cook your food, raise your child, mow your grass, do your job, drive your car- up to and including what kind of car you drive they are doing God’s work, and they are perfectly willing to put you in jail for your own good should you disagree.

I don’t care if you lean to the left or right you should be pissed off when you mail in that tax check this week. Even if you get a refund keep in mind, you have merely lent the government money with no interest over the past year. Most of that money will be wasted on things that do not improve your life one little bit. You should be pissed and mightily so.

You do have to pay them. I will pay mine but not out of patriotic duty. It is because if I don’t, they will send people with guns to take my property for the use of the state and put me in jail.
I love my country. I love its people and its vision. I don’t love the outright theft of my money at the point of a gun for wasteful and often idiotic purposes that I do not support or endorse.
Thus endeth the tax day rant. We shall now return to markets books and baseball

Mark Twain, Market Strategist

I was reading over the Bain and Company Private Equity report over the weekend, and there was a key line that stood out for me. The report mentioned that “Resilient PE markets have provided a floor on sellers’ price expectations. Acquisition multiples reached record or near-record highs across the US and Europe, at more than ten times EBITDA in both regions at the start of 2016. In a recent Preqin survey, buyout GPs overwhelmingly cited deal pricing as the biggest challenge facing the industry.” Assets are getting expensive, and it is tough to get deals done at a reasonable price.”

Bain analysts added “And there’s a new wrinkle: Every month brings us closer to what many consider an inevitable next recession. Assumptions that GPs now build into any deal model for market beta—future multiple expansion, GDP expansion, leverage—have turned more bearish. GPs find it increasingly difficult to pencil out how assets bought at prices today will achieve targeted returns.” It is going to be tough to get money to work at prices that will allow private equity firms to get the returns their Limited Partners expect.

The report goes on to outline way firms may search for deals that offer adequate returns but the truth it is going to be difficult to get large sums of money to work. PE firms continue dot do a lot of selling in 2016. While not quite up to the record setting pace of 4014-2015 2016 was still one of the biggest years in PE exits with about $300 billion of assets sold in one form or another. Combine this with strong fundraising in a return starved world and cash is piling up at PE firms. There is currently about $1.47 trillion in dry powder waiting to be invested. $534 billion of that is earmarked for traditional buyout funds.

Private equity fund managers are going to have to cut back on their expectations or begin to look for riskier deals with higher potential returns The Bain reports notes that “As a result, GPs who aspire to generate the strong returns that a “2-and-20” model demands will have to take on more risk or get more creative in putting money to work. The standard formula for GPs cannot accommodate the prices paid in the middle of the fairway. PE funds are getting pushed into the rough and the sand traps, where the higher-risk deals live.” The private equity firms that reach too far will fare poorly in my opinion. Those who sit on their cash and wait for their deal at their price will do very well, but patience is a difficult chore in a world dominated by short-term thinking.

The tone of the report is optimistic about the PE industry but suggests that high valuation will make it harder to find deals that yield the returns investors have come to expect from private equity funds. PE funds are selling a lot of assets and cash is piling up as they wait for better pricing to deploy the money.

Compare the cautious tone of the private equity folks to this weekend’s front page headline in the Weekend WSJ. Just above the fold was an article titled Small Investors Run to ETFs. $124 billion has gone into ETFs so far in 2017, and retail investors have accounted for about 85% of that volume at Blackrock according to the article. Nine years after the market bottom investors are finally getting excited about stocks. A lot of the money has gone onto S&P 500 ETFs but here has been a lot of buying in sectors investors think will fare well under President Trump. The Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF has attracted more than $8 billion in assets since the election. Given that the fund has about $26 billion in assets that is a huge asset build.

When retail investors are rushing to throw money at the market, it is a good time to rethink your portfolio. As Mark Twain since suggested, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Last week I put hedges in place for the first time in 8 years.

More Banks, Baseball and Books

I had a chance earlier this week to sit down and chat with Robert Hendershott of Context BH Capital. Context is a fund the employs an event-driven, long/short investment strategy focused on the community and regional banking sectors. They invest in banks that are acquisition targets of aggressive consolidators and capturing takeover premiums in advance of acquisition announcement and select merger arbitrage transactions post-acquisition announcement.

This firm was built from academia, not Wall Street. Mr. Hendershott was a professor at Santa Clara University where he wrote several papers about the likelihood of banking consolidation once interstate banking regulations were relaxed. He realized that there was money to be made here and in 1998 he became an advisor to a hedge fund and eventually struck out on his own. In 2010 he started managing individual separate accounts and started the fund in 2012.

Mr. Hendershott pointed out that consolidation has been going on for a long time. When all this started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were over 16,000 banks in the United States. Today we are down to just about 6,000. He also noted that the number of publicly traded banks has stayed about the same over this time. The banks that have disappeared via M&A have been small private banks for the most part. He thinks that the thousands of smaller banks in the US are an endangered species right now.

He is cautiously optimistic about community banks in 201. If all the expectations of lowered regulations and tax cuts coupled with a growing economy and higher net interest margins today’s prices will be an excellent entry point. He is worried about the timing and form of all these changes and exactly who changes are made to banking regulations and tax code. I have said for since the election that if it all comes to pass it will be a community bank bonanza. Given that we are dealing with politicians and the legislative process there is a lot that can go wrong along the way.

He said several times that it is just not a lot of fun to run a bank these days and that provides an incentive to merge. The burden and cost of running a small bank today are enormous, and many bankers are suffering from what I have called exhausted board syndrome. They are tired, and the current improved pricing may spur some to ring the bell and sell the bank.

I share Mr. Henderhott’s views pretty much down the line. We will continue to see M&A activity and it will go on for years. We have too many banks, and consolidation has to continue no matter what happens in Washington this year. I worry about current valuations in the sector, but among the smaller banks, I can still find some banks to buy at bargain prices. The Trade of the decade continues and will for some time still to come.

SnapChat priced today, and I am supposed to have an opinion as a responsible observer of the financial markets. I have no idea what the stock will do, but my opinion is that this is a piece of crap. The valuation is ridiculously high, and corporate governance is non-existent as investors will be buying shares with no voting right. As near as I can tell the app exists so millennials and teenager can trade Boobie pics and has little to no practical purposes. I confess that I am very suspicious of parents who teens have the app on their phones and there is no chance in hell the youngest will ever have it while I pay for the phone. The stock will be priced at 60 times revenue at the IPO price. The corporate governance issues alone would keep me from buying the stock but the valuation ad some very real questions about exactly why we even need a company like this further my deep aversion and dislike for the stock and the company.

The market hit 21,000 on the Dow this week in a rapid fire move up from the 20,000 level it hit earlier this year. Wall Street is in love with this new President and his agenda but as Mr. Hendershott observed when discussing the bank there is a long way to go. He is the President to be sure, but he is not the Emperor. The key provisions of his plans have to be legislated, and it is clear from the behavior of the Democrats during Tuesday night’s speech they have no intention if playing along or cooperating in any form. They refuse to even agree with him when he agrees with their ideas. Tax and Regulatory reform are still a long way off, and stocks are priced as if it all starts to hit the bottom line tomorrow morning. If you are not cautious here, you are not thinking things all the way through in my opinion. Cautious optimism and a strict adherence to valuation with an increased emphasis on margin of safety seem to be the best course of action.

On a happier note, I got a look at the new book release schedule for March and its pretty exciting. Randy Wayne White, Greg Iles, Clive Cussler, Robert Crais, Paul Levine, Ken Follett, Janet Evanovich, Stuart Woods and some other favorites will be out this month. Since I am spending a week at the beach in Texas in March while visiting my in-laws, I intend to do a lot of recreational reading this month.

That is when I am not watching baseball. The MLB app that allows me to watch games on my phone is one of my very favorite inventions of all time. In addition to the Spring Training games, I can and will be watching the World Baseball Classic as well this spring. The AL East is shaping up to be a dogfight this year, and I see a lot of books and baseball in my future. Reading a good book while watching the ballgame over the top of the page is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening and the new release list, and Spring Training results so far appear to offer some great opportunities to do just that for the next several months.

I am starting to work on my baseball predictions for the 2017 season and will have that around the third week of the month for you. We had a good year last year predicting division winners and had the easy prediction of the Cubs winning it all. There have been a lot of offseason moves and some good young talent that will make their MLB debut this year, so it is going to be a bit tougher to get it right, but I think I am up for the challenge.

Everyone is pretty excited about the markets right now. At such times I like to recall Mark Twain’s suggestion that “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Have a great week

Tim

Let’s be careful out there, so we don’t end up shedding

Munger, Political Bile and Reading For Fun

How many different ways can I say that the market looks pretty expensive at these levels and a heightened sense of caution is warranted? My basic view of the stock market has not changed in the past week, and I do not expect it to over the next week. My trusty Barrons shows the market trading at 26 times earnings, and that’s not a fantastic starting point for a rally based on historical evidence. I could be wrong, and the Bulls could carry the day with the Trump inspired optimism winning the day. If I can find new safe and cheap ideas that pass my financial safety tests, I will buy them. I spend a good part of my day looking for stocks to buy but I am not finding anything right now. Hopefully, that changes soon, but I suspect it will take some sort of market dislocation to create some new inventory.

Of course, as much as the market loved President Trump the Democrats and the left hate him even more. There is a full court press going on in Washington, and it has created some political turmoil early in the new administration’s term. Trump and his team seem to be taking a page out of Andrew Jackson playbook and are counter punching, and all this just makes for some ugly politics. I confess that the vile mental regurgitations coming from both sides is hard to watch at times, but it probably gets worse before it gets better. I find the lack of independent thought and strict adherence to unproven dogma from both sides to be disturbing. The markets do not seem to care about the turmoil at this point, but that is subject to change without notice. Battles over tax reform and regulatory rollback could be upsetting if it doesn’t all proceed as smoothly as bulls are hoping.

Charlie Munger had some advice for Mr. Trump’s opponents at yesterday’s Daily Journal meeting he said that “Trump is not wrong on everything. Just because he isn’t like us, roll with it. And if there is a little danger, what the hell, you’re not going to live forever anyway.” He added that “I always try and think about the good along with what’s not good. I think some of this stuff where they’re re-examining options about the whole tax system of the country, I think that is a very constructive thing.” Mr. Munger also had some thoughts on all the protestors and boycotts saying “I don’t like all that. Basically, I’m not in favor of young people agitating and trying to change the whole world because they know so much. I think young people should learn more and shop less, so I’m not sympathetic to anybody. Young people are out in the streets agitating—that’s not my system. I think if you’ve got Hitler or something you can agitate. But short of that, young people should learn more and shop less.”

He added “You can get so consumed by some kind of ideological notion (particularly at a left-wing university) that you think you are handling ethics and what you’re doing is not working and maybe smoking a little pot to boot. This is not the Munger system. My hero is Maimonides. All that philosophy, all that writing he did after working all those hours a day as a practicing physician all his life. He believed in the engaged life. I recommend that you engage life. If you spend all your time on how some politician wants it this way or that way and you’re sure you know what’s right – you’re on the wrong track. You want to do something every day where you’re coping with reality. You want to be more like Maimonides and less like Bernie Sanders.”

Investors would do well to follow not just Mr. Mungers words but his actions as well. Once again this quarter the 13F filing from the Daily Journal, where he is the chairman, showed no activity. It has not shown any activity since 2009 when Mr. Munger took the firms cash and bout four stocks as the markets were collapsing. He has not traded around the positions and “managed the portfolio in any way. He has just sat still and watched his money multiply by several multiples of his purchase price. Sit on your butt investing at its finest.

Speaking of 13F filings, I am apparently not the only one concerned about market levels. I saw a lot of selling in 13F filings this week from leading value and activist investors. There was even a good deal of selling among the bank stock specialists as valuation blossomed post-election, something I haven’t seen in a long time. It was not just the bank guys either as value types, and private equity firms were also doing a lot of selling and very little buying in the fourth quarter. This is just another caution flag about market levels and valuations, and you ignore it at your peril. I am not selling anything that I have yet, but I am very reluctant to be a buyer at these levels.

Onto to happier thoughts position players report in Sarasota today as the Orioles get ready for the new season. I like our chances if Bundy and Gausman pitch to potential and Tillman comes back healthy. We are going to have a tough year with Boston loaded with talent and New York adding youth and power to the lineup, but we have the bats to compete. Our bullpen looks good again. Buck Showalter was asked if this was the best bullpen he ever managed and he said “This would rank right up there potentially because of the depth of it and the ability for Brad and Zach and Darren and if Mychal can duplicate what he did the last month of the season. The difference is all four of them can get left- and right-handed hitters out. That’s what’s unusual about it. They’ve got an inning, they pitch it. You’ve got four hitters, and three of them are right-handed, you don’t have to get a guy up as soon as somebody gets on base. That’s how you keep bullpens healthy.” If we can add competitive starting pitching to bats and bullpen, we will be in the hunt.

On the all-important recreational reading front, I blitzed through the first three books in the Jim and Kram Mystery series by Brent Purvis. Nothing educational in these other than a little history and geography of Southeast Alaska but they are a fun read. Pure escapism, which may be increasingly needed as the political environment just gets weirder in the weeks and months ahead. Parts are laugh out loud funny, and all three have a decent plot. There is a new addition to the Miami Jones series out this week as well as new Charlie Crawford Palm Beach mystery. I am a fan of both of those series and am looking forward to consuming them soon.

Every once in a while I get an email complaining about my discussion of books and baseball and advising me to stock to the market. That doesn’t sound like much fun to me, so I usually send a polite thank you and ignore the suggestion. I am also asked why I don’t offer suggestions for more serious book. While I read a lot of nonfiction and have been known to dabble in philosophy, there are more than enough people doing that. Shane Parrish at the Farnam Street Blog does a fantastic job of this. Patrick O’Shaughnessy does a phenomenal job with his book club. Yu don’t need me to do that. Lots of other folks are doing that for you. I do a lot of serious reading, but I also read for the pure fun of reading, so I like to share some of the books I found fun to read

Also, most of us would be better off spending more time reading fiction and watching baseball than we do reading about chart patterns, formulas and astrological events that will help us make money in the stock market. Buying right and holding on over time is going to make you more money that all of that stuff. Patiently owning stocks bought at a discount price while watching baseball games and reading a good book is going to make you more money that all the lines you draw on charts over your investing lifetime.

That’s all for this week. I’m stopping by the American Association meeting here in Orlando nest week, so I am sure I will have some interesting tidbits from that gathering next week. Plus there actual baseball games on Thursday and Friday!

Cheers,
Tim
For baseball fans it is time for some

Big Guns, Cheap Banks and Sweet Cash

It seems the hedge fund gurus are out in force of late talking about their view of the market. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater penned a piece in a recent edition of The Economist, and he was less than upbeat, to say the least. He wrote “The bond market is risky now and will get more so. Rarely do investors encounter a market that is so clearly overvalued and also so close to its clearly defined limits, as there is a limit to how low negative bond yields can go. Bonds will become a very bad deal as ­central banks try to push more money into them, and savers will decide to keep that money elsewhere. Right now, while a number of riskier assets look like good value compared with bonds and cash, they are not cheap given their risks. They all have low returns with typical volatility, and as people buy them, their reward-to-risk ratio will worsen. This will create a growing risk that savers will seek to escape financial assets and shift to gold and similar non-monetary preserves of wealth, especially as social and political ­tensions intensify.”

He added, “For those interested in studying analogous periods, I recommend looking at 1935-45, after the 1929-32 stock market and economic crashes, and following the great quantitative easings that caused stock prices and economic activity to rebound and led to “pushing on a string” in 1935. That was the last time that the global configuration of fund­amentals was broadly similar to what it is today.”

Being me, I went and looked. Driven by stimulus programs the market had risen from the bottom in 1932 through 1935 and continued to move higher until topping out in 1937. From here we fell by about 50% before bottoming. We didn’t recover the 1937 highs until 1945. Mr. Dalio doesn’t think a collapse is imminent but warns that the buying of risk assets by investors chasing return will continue to make them less attractive until the bubble does pop so to speak and a pullback in stocks and bonds become almost inevitable.

In a very rare occurrence, the whole of Seth Klarman’s annual shareholder letter was leaked, and he was not much more upbeat about things. He wrote to his investors saying “The steady drum beat of stock market gains (the S&P 500 index closed at record highs on eight different occasions between the election and year-end) casts a spell on market participants -no one wants to miss this ticket to paradise. As they piled in, investors were largely ignoring perilously high valuations. Goldman Sachs noted that the S&R 500, in aggregate, recently traded at the 85th percentile of its historical valuation over the last 40 years, while the median company in the S&P 500 had reached the 98th percentile of valuation. Respected investor Jeremy Grantham calculated this market as the third most expensive of the last century, behind only the markets of 1929 and 200, both of which ended disastrously for investors. David Rosenberg, the respected chief economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, a leading Canadian asset manager, noted that the U.S. stock market in early December was pricing in a whopping 30% earnings per share growth for 2017.”

David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital warns that we may see a reversal of the Main Street Wall Street disconnect at long last. He told his investors that “Since Election Day, the market appears to have changed its macroeconomic outlook and is re-evaluating the prospects for many companies accordingly. This change in tone has been favorable to our style, and we generated a good result in the quarter despite our low net exposure and a decline in gold. Rather than look backward, we’d like to share our views of what a Trump Presidency (TP) might look like and why we believe we are well-positioned for 2017. In short, we believe that the post-Great Recession easy money policies have been good for Wall Street but bad for Main Street. It’s possible that the TP reverses these policies, which would be good for Main Street but rough on Wall Street.”

He suggests that one of the strategies to prepare for a Trump Presidency is to short a basket of bubbles. He suggested “Bubble basket stocks mostly don’t have profits, which makes them unlikely to benefit from corporate tax cuts. Further, an accelerating economy should allow investors to find growth without needing to pay nosebleed prices for a narrow group of profitless top-line growth stocks. We think the basket is poised to further underperform with one caveat: There is a risk that Disney decides to star in the Internet Bubble 2.0 remake of the TWX/AOL deal by acquiring a profitless Netflix (NFLX) at the top. We suspect Disney won’t. Accordingly, NFLX merits a spot in the basket because its domestic market has matured; it risks an unfavorable change in net neutrality rules, and it has not demonstrated that its huge investment in original content has a positive return. We believe it doesn’t. NFLX is able to report that its U.S. streaming segment is highly profitable only by allocating a disproportionate amount of content amortization to its smaller and unprofitable international streaming segment.”

Daniel Loeb of Third Point reminded us that this is not the 1980s. He wrote to his investors saying “While markets are at highs, accelerating economic growth both in the U.S. and globally means that earnings should also rise for the first time in three years. The combination of higher nominal growth and lower tax rates could cause earnings to rise in the high single digits this year. Some observers highlight the parallels to the 1980s, but drawing too much from that comparison is dangerous because the starting levels are very different. Then, both interest rates and unemployment were high; now, both are low and likely moving higher. Debt as a function of GDP was 30%. It is now 80%. The median age in the U.S. was 30 then and is now 38. While this does not mean things cannot improve, particularly in 2017‐18, creating a virtuous cycle by following a 1980s blueprint is highly unlikely.

Mr. Loeb does make me happy with his thoughts on financial stocks, of which obviously we own a ton. He is quite bullish saying “In terms of fundamentals, rising rates in the U.S. have the obvious benefit of boosting net interest margins. But this is particularly true today because banks are sitting on more excess cash and liquidity than at any time in history. Indeed, with over $4 trillion of liquidity parked at the Fed, many banks do not need additional deposit inflows to fund loan growth for years to come – they already have the cash on hand to lend. This amplifies the benefits of rising rates as banks raise lending rates without a corresponding hike in deposit rates.” He further notes that “Our bank stocks trade at less than 10x earnings with high‐teens EPS growth ahead and at a small premium to tangible book value for returns that will expand into the mid‐teens.”

 

I don’t base my investments decisions on what the big guys are doing. However, the actions and opinions of investors who have made a lot of money over a very long time are certainly input factors into the decision making process. The limited number of safe and cheap opportunities is also a great reason for caution at current levels. I think that anyone willing to throw caution to the wind in what is a pricey market surrounded by uncertain conditions is being foolish. The market has been moving up for eight years now pretty much without a break in spite of a slow growth environment buoyed primarily by low interest rates. That may be changing, and I think that I grow fonder of my cash hoard with each passing day.

 

Moving onto more important things pitchers and catchers begin reporting on Monday and position players should all be in camp by the end of the week except the slackers on the Texas Rangers. Their position guys don’t show up until a week from Monday. I have started the data collection process for my season preview which is usually out sometime in mid to late March. I see that my wife has us heading out to the beach in Texas to visit her family in late March so I expect that’s when I will do it this year as the idea of combining baseball and beaches has a certain appeal. My track record predicting baseball seasons has been much better than my record predicting stock market movements. It is shaping up to be a very interesting season, and my Orioles look to be in it all year. I am signing up for my MLB TV package so if you see me walking along staring at my phone over the next eight months its not social media; it’s baseball!

Have a great week.

Cheers!
Tim
When approaching markets its probably best to emulate Bob Marley and use some

Skinny Tigers, Hot Rods and Talented Armadillos

I didn’t get a Thursday piece out last week as I was busy prepping for my trip to Phoenix and the Bank Directors Acquire or be Acquired Conference. This is easily my favorite conference each year as more than 1000 bankers, investment bankers, and Fintech types gather in the desert to talk banking. The mood this year was incredibly upbeat as bankers are looking forward to reduced regulatory requirements, lower taxes, higher interest rates and a stronger economy. I am not sure they will get it all as quick as they would like but as I quickly discovered mentioning that fact to a banker who is blinking in the sunshine as they emerge from almost nine years in the darkness is a lot like trying to take a steak from a skinny Tiger.

I confirmed again on this year’s trip that my backside is not built for any flights much over 4 hours. Airlines are maximizing profit by squeezing as many folks on each flight as they possibly can, and that makes for uncomfortable flying. Of course, I am old enough to remember when you were served an entire meal on a flight and could sit back and enjoy a cigarette after the meal. Times have changed, and while I appreciate the profit motive, my skinny butt does not enjoy the long voyage in an uncomfortable seat. As I was picking up a rental car when landing, I could not even use the cocktail remedy to solve my comfort issues, so the last hour or so of the flight was just not fun.

The rental car was fun. They gave me a Dodge Charger Hemi to drive, and I am not a car guy by any stretch of the imagination, but that thing is just fun to drive. It growls when you step on the gas and takes off like the guy who took the steak from the skinny tiger. I could never own one of these cars. I would have to get a real job just to pay off the traffic tickets that would quickly accumulate.

Back to the conference, there was a great deal of optimism about deal activity this year. The Trump Bump has lifted valuations, and that helps deal activity in two ways. First, those banks who are interested in acquiring now have a much stronger currency to use to get deals done. Second, smaller banks that have resisted selling because they could not get the price they wanted are now a lot closer to a price they can be comfortable accepting. There are still a lot of tired bankers out there, and they have wanted out for some time. The average bank executive is over 60, and the average board member is over 70, and after eight tough years, they are, ready to call it today and work on their golf game or sit under the palm trees with umbrella drinks. The figure tossed around the most was that 4 to 5% of community banks would be acquired this year which would work out to between 24o and 300 deals in 2017. We have already seen one deal in our portfolio as it was announced that Royal Bancshares of Pennsylvania (RBAA) was being taken over on the second day of the conference. I expect to see a lot more before we close the books on 2017.

The best session for my money was the Investors panel of Tom Brown CEO at Second Curve Capital, John Eggemeyer Founder and Managing Partner at Castle Creek Capital, Richard Hunt President & CEO at Consumer Bankers Association and Josh Siegel Chairman and CEO at StoneCastle Partners, LLC. These guys weren’t just bullish they were wildly so. They did agree that most of the deal activity will once again be among the smaller banks with less than $1 billion in assets, but they felt, the larger banks would see enormous benefits from the improving outlook for banks. Their only concerns seemed to be management that did something stupid or failed to keep up with technology. Using FinTech to improve profits as well as attract and retain customers was seen as critical by nearly all the panelists. The panel seemed to feel that headwinds were turning into tailwinds for the whole sector. The tide is just turning so there are not any excesses in the system, credit is solid, and the road is clear for banks to have an extended run. These are very smart investors with decades of experience investing in community banks so when they are bullish, perhaps we should pay attention

This is also the year that banks and FinTechs did a Tracey –Hepburn and quit quarreling long enough to realize they were madly in love. Fintech has realized that they are not going to replace banks without actually becoming banks themselves and banks have come to understand that the nerdy kids in board shorts with broken glasses and a laptop with enough power to run a mission to Mars can make them more efficient and more profitable. The talk has shifted from protecting themselves from Fintech to how to best partner with them for fun and profit. There is even growing chatter from banks about just taking over a FinTech company that has the technology they want to use to run their banks.

Bank Director did an instant survey of the audience, and the data was interesting. 44.7% of bankers felt that M&A remained the best way to grow their bank. 27.5% thought they would be able to use both M&A and organic growth to get bigger in 2017. 48.5% of bankers in attendance expect to buy another bank this year. 60.4% think we will see more deals this year than we did in 2016. Market location and deposit base were the key considerations when looking at a target for the bankers in the room. 78.7% think that the new administration is great news for banks.

Most of the time I never even use the word diversity. I am a free market type with an unwavering belief in the power of the meritocracy. The job should fall to the best person regardless of race, genitalia, dating preference or species. If a gay Hispanic armadillo best for the job at hand that’s where the job should go. However, each year when I go to this event I come away with a sure and certain knowledge that in the executive suite community banks have a serious diversity issue. There is none. Almost the entire audience was middle-aged and up white men. Given that John Eggemeyer of Castle Creek pointed out that banking does suffer from a dearth of management and the industry struggles to attract talent it seems silly to me to limit membership in the club. If I were at the ABA or ICBA (Independent Community Bankers Association) job, one would be working with universities around the nation to attract women and minorities to the banking industry. The industry needs to begin looking more like the market, and right now we are a long way from that being true.

We are only 16 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to camp here in Florida and out in Arizona. Out long national nightmare will, at last, be over and baseball will be back in America. We can turn our weary eyes away from politics and once again focus on the things that matter in life like the fate of the Orioles young pitching staff and the Cubs chances to repeat. The focus will shift from Trump to Trout, and we all will be better for it.

Have a great week everyone!

Tim

Much like my Hemi in Phoenix this week bans and bank stocks look to be ready to

Baseball, Brass Knuckles and Wild Weekends

It is going to be an interesting weekend. The Inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is going to touch of arguments, paid discussions, rallies, counter demonstrations and at least a moderate chance of full on riots in some of our major cities. It will be loud, it will be constant, and it will be on the major news networks all weekend. I will watch some of it since I am a news junkie but is going to be painful at times. It seems everybody has an opinion about Mr. Trump and also feels a need to express it loudly and apparently sometimes with a baseball bat and Molotov cocktail.

There will be another much more important argument this weekend as well. Did the Hall of Fame get it right? I think they did, for the most part, this time around for the most part. I confess that Curt Schilling losing votes because of his political opinions leads me to fear that politically correct thinking is invading baseball writers as well as the mainstream press and I find that as bothersome as not allowing whiskey in the Press Box. If we use PC as a standard that a bunch of folks like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Murray and a host of others. The guy won 10 of 12 postseason games he pitched in with a postseason ERA of 2.82. He was a World Series MVP. He should get in.

Of course, the biggest argument is Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons. Should they be in the hall? We are pretty sure they used steroids to enhance their performance. We do not have enough evidence to convict them of it in a court of law however and they were the most dominant players of their time. They were great before they were thought to be using the juice. I think Pete Rose should be in Cooperstown. I don’t care if he bet on baseball as long as he never bet against his team. In fact, I think making players and managers bet on their team every single game might bring an extra level of suspense to the game!

What does all this have to do with markets and stocks? Nothing, but then again neither does much of the stuff you here discussed with great passion and conviction on the major financial news networks. We have a tendency to over thin all of this and look for clues where they do not exist. Former Chairman of the Yale Endowment and author of several fantastic investment books Charley Ellis did a recent interview with the Financial Times and told reporter John Authers ““We all learned in school that if you studied harder you could get better grades, then we learn in our jobs if we do more work for the employer we get more promotions. Trying harder works in many, many places. It doesn’t work in straight jackets, Chinese finger puzzles, and it doesn’t work in investment management.”

When asked, to sum up his investment approach legendary investor Walter Schloss put it very simply saying “We buy cheap stocks.” I am constantly looking for new ways to find and evaluate potential cheap stocks, but the secret sauce is simply “We buy cheap stocks.” Talking about all the macro stuff is fun, and there are some observers like Henry McVey at KKKR that I think to get things right a lot more than they get things wrong but focusing on cheap stocks will tell you all you need to know about macro investing conditions. When markets are out of favor, and it is a very good time to buy, and there are lots of cheap stocks. When markets are high, and sentiment favors stocks there ae very few cheap stocks, and it is a pretty good time to consider selling or hedging your portfolio.

Charlie Munger said back at the 2008 Wesco Annual meeting that “”One of the greatest ways to avoid trouble is to keep it simple. When you make it vastly complicated, and only a few high priests in each department can pretend to understand it what you’re going to find all too often is that those high priests don’t really understand it at all. The system often goes out of control.” Some years later in an interview wth the Wall Street Journal that “It’s waiting that helps you as an investor, and a lot of people just can’t stand to wait. If you didn’t get the deferred-gratification gene, you’ve got to work very hard to overcome that.”

The concept of a magical key that provides instant stock market riches and if we just work hard enough, read enough trading books and draw enough lines of a chart is one of the biggest reasons most individual investors underperform not just the stock market buy cash and inflation as well over time. Our greatest advantages as individual investors are size and time and we give them away every day. We can buy exciting companies with solid prospects at bargain prices and wait for them to grow up. We can invest in a portfolio if liquid community bank stocks purchased below book value and just hold them until they either grow or sell. We do not have an investment or policy committee that will fire us if we build cash balance to buy in a severe market decline at the cost of short-term performance.

The advantages of individual investors are size and time. It is like having brass knuckles in a boxing match or loaded dice at the crap table. Roger Ibbotson did a study on stock market liquidity factors and found that small, less liquid value stock outperformed growth stock with higher valuations by a margin of more than 8 to 1 over time. There are a ridiculous number of studies that show that longer holding periods mean higher returns and a good deal of the performance comes via the natural upward drift of the market and keeping the broker and taxman’s hands off your stash.

These are powerful wealth building advantages and every day I see individuals throw them away, step into the ring and get their clock cleaned. They draw lines on charts and when they lose don’t understand what happened because they worked so hard reading these trading books and drawing lines all night. They unload the dice and buy the same popular stocks everyone else is buying expecting different results. It doesn’t work that way.

Work smart. Use your advantages. Buy cheap stocks. Hold them for a long time. Hoard cash for a crash. That seems too simple, but the truth works. Best of all it leaves lots of time for naps, baseball, family and a voracious reading habit.

As for the weekend I do think we will see some unrest around much of the nation but those on both sides to listen to the wisdom of Charlie who once advised during a speech at the USC Law School graduation ceremony that “”Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. When you’re young it’s easy to drift into loyalties and when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind.”

Have a great week everyone. Don’t forget the new Ed Thorp book is A Man for All Markets is due next week. Be sure to preorder your copy. You will want this one in print as it’s a keeper.
Have a great week
Tim

Ps. Buckle up. It just could be a

Greek Philosphy, Tough Guys and Rubbernecking

In his most recent memo, Howards Marks of Oaktree (OAK) talks about forecasting. At one point he cites Greek philosophy to make his point saying ““If you wish to improve,” Epictetus [first-century Greek philosopher] once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” One of the most powerful things we can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or more provocatively, “I don’t care.” Not about everything, of course – just most things. Because most things don’t matter, and most news stories aren’t worth tracking. “

The hardest thing for anyone connected with Wall Street to say is “I do not know.” The whole business of Wall Street is making a bet based on a guess of the eventual outcome. The S&P 500 will rise by 7.3% over the next 12 months. The interest rate of the ten year Treasury Bond will rise to 3.01% by the end of 2017. IBM (IBM) will earn $13.84 next year. Amazon (AMZN) will grow earnings by 36.08% annually for the next five years. These predictions are all very concise and delivered with a high degree of confidence. They are almost certain to be wrong.

As Mr. Marks points out in his memo “Developments in economies, interest rates, currencies, and markets aren’t the result of scientific processes. The involvement in them of people, with their emotions, foibles, and biases, renders them highly unpredictable. As physicist, Richard Feynman put it, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!” It is hard enough to predict what might happen. It is impossible to predict how people will react to what happens.

I read a lot of forecasts and outlook every year to see what folks think of the world. The very best of these is done by Henry McVey and his team in the Global Macro Department at KKR(KKR). While the do make some predictions they also focus on what looks good to them right now and they take great pains to lay out what might happen to derail their expectations. They also outline how to hedge so of the risks in case they are wrong. It is more of an in-depth explanation of current conditions than an accurate forecast, and I find it useful in understanding the world and markets.

Their expectations this year are for rates to rise slowly and equity markets to return in the low single digits. Real assets that produce income are also expected to do well, and they favor opportunistic real estate purchases, and KKR likes MLPs in the energy infrastructure space. Again their decision is based more on pricing right now than any expectations or guesses about what might happen in the economy or the world.

In what I think is the most relevant paragraph of the whole report Mr. McVey writes “Also, as we outlined earlier, many of our models suggest more limited upside to asset class returns than in the recent past. Accordingly, we continue to favor a strategy that takes advantage of idiosyncratic opportunities, particularly those that enjoy better pricing during periods of market dislocations as well as those that harness complexity to their benefit. On the other hand, we continue to shun simplicity and/or areas of the market where we believe recent inflows have been too exuberant, particularly around visibility of earning streams.’

That sounds somewhat Melvinesque in nature. Buy when prices have fallen sharply and avoid those areas of the market everyone loves. The whole report can be found at www.kkr.com, and I highly recommend you take the time to read it.

Next week we will have a new President, and the real fun will begin. If you think the journalists, pundits, and whackos on both sides of the aisle have been ridiculous since the election wait until you see what happens when Mr. Trump is in the White House. The fur is going to fly, and I am going to be very interested to see how it all plays out. Melania needs to ground the Prez like I do my youngest but taking his social media accounts away, or he could lose the support of Congress early in this whole thing. While I like some of his ideas on the economy and jobs and am a huge fan of many of his cabinet appointments I fear that he will run into huge problems with the process of governing. This is not the Trump Corporation where his world is law. This is a pretty good chance to remake the regulatory environment and rewrite the mess we call a tax code, so I hope he doesn’t blow it in 140 characters or less.

Turning again to Epictetus in life and equally so in the markets, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. We cannot predict tor control what the markets will do, but we can put ourselves in a position to respond to what it does. We currently own some little banks, REITs, discounted closed-end funds and other companies that we purchased at bargain prices. If the market gets carried away and pushes the prices of these assets to silly levels, then we will monetize euphoria by selling them at fantastic prices. We also have a lot of cash, so if price should collapse in the cold gray aftermath of Inauguration Day or some other geopolitical even, then we will be in a position to monetize fear by purchasing quality assets at deep discounts to their underlying value.
In the recreational reading front, I am on the second of 6 of the novels by former Forbes and New York Times business writer Lawrence De Maria featuring tough guy detective Jake Scarne. The main character is a lot like Spenser in the Robert Parker novels with a touch of Travis McGee thrown in for good measure. It is clear that McGee is an influence as in one the scene in the second book a hit man is talking to a woman he met on a plane about the many virtues of reading John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee. So far both books have a financial or real estate backdrop and are easy fund reading. The Kindle versions are bargain price so that naturally appeals to me as well.
Have a great week everyone!
Tim
PS- When approaching the markets it pays to take the philosophy advice of the King-who would have turned 79 this week!

Talking Banks With Chris Marinac Of FIG Partners

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Tim: Okay. We’re on today with Chris Marinac of FIG Partners, a community bank specialist, research, and investment firm. Chris, thanks for spending a little time with us, and as we all know, the community banks have been pretty exciting since the election. What do you see as we go into the new year in the community bank space?

Chris Marinac: Well, I think the companies are very healthy, Tim, from a fundamental perspective. The capital is strong. They do have loan growth. The deposit growth, for the most part, has been solid. We think the liquidity at these companies is very good in many respects. These companies have more money to lend, in that we can see the cash and securities balances coming down, and loan balances go up. That’s gonna be positive for revenue and positive for margins. So I think it’s a pretty healthy time. And as I mentioned, credit is in very good shape, and I think that is always important, because credit tends to be what hurts the banking industry the most, and right now, we’re in a pretty good spot.

Tim: Okay. Do you see that credit possibly worsening in 2017? Bankers keep telling me that credit can’t possibly get any better, and then quarter after quarter, it keeps getting better. What can happen, economically, to change that?

CM: So the banks are a mirror of the communities they serve, Tim. So, if local economies were to deteriorate, then credit will get worse. I think the attitude among businesses is stable to improved, and that actually is gonna, I think, increase spending. And as businesses increase spending, potentially, change hiring plans, even if it’s modest, it should actually spill over into more loan demand, which actually would spill over into better credit. I think, on a selective basis, you’re always gonna have flare-ups that happen. There were individual situations where companies or borrowers have one-off incidents that occur. Sometimes, those get extrapolated. I think we had that happen with Opus Bank, of the past quarter or two, where some credit issues were extrapolated into a much bigger issue than probably exists, and that company, most likely, creates stability in the next quarter or two and proves that out.

CM: I think, in other instances, we’ve seen a lot of energy-related issues that are now going to get cleaned up in terms of the initial recognition has already been done. The problems that exist and the write-downs that are needed will occur, Q4 and the first half of ’17, and we’ll move on to another issue. And as long as energy prices stay where they are now, I think a lot of that has sort of been identified and should work its way through the system. So, the ongoing, incremental problems just aren’t out there. The level of past dues, the level of substandard loans for those banks who report that information, are very low. The charge-offs, most importantly, are very low. I think it will take time for that to develop that. If it does become more of a credit cycle developing, it occurs more in ’18 and ’19 than I think it occurs in ’17.

Tim: Okay. And I take it, you’re not seeing any bankers make a come 2006 brand or stupid loans at this point in the cycle, are you?

CM: Well, “stupid” is always a relative term, and so, compared to what we see today, we see, if anything, more examples of banks taking undue risk in terms of interest rates, where they’re fixing loans for five to eight years. Sometimes, they’re properly hedging those loans, perhaps with a federal home loan bank instrument, or other long-term CD, but typically, they’re not. And so that would be the only example of sorta stupid that I feel is out there. I think, credit in terms… We’ve seen those terms and structures sort of weaken and lessen over the last couple of years. It will just take another probably two years to fully develop into issues. But again, the good thing is that banks have earnings, they have capital, they can handle those issues, and we’re seeing that. Again, I use the Opus incident. Opus can handle the issue and address it and move on, and that’s a sign of health, it’s a sign of strength. Even though it’s unfortunate those things happen, they can handle it and move on.

Tim: Okay. Now, of course, the big question on everybody’s mind, and really the driver of this rally since the election, how does the regulatory environment change next year? What are your thoughts on that? Because I’ve heard everything from probably not gonna really change much at all ’til they’re just gonna rip Dodd-Frank up and throw it away. Where do you come in on that one?

CM: Well, regulatory change took a long time to be implemented, and I think it’ll take a long time to be broken down. I think that this will be a year where the regulations are known, that there’s no new rules that are put on, with maybe a couple of exceptions, which I’ll talk about. I think it’s gonna sort of be steady as she goes. I think the big picture question which has engaged investors who do look out longer than the next six to 12 months is that the direction of regulatory is towards reform. It is towards reducing Dodd-Frank, it’s towards perhaps rethinking how we treat the regulatory process. And that’ll be changed in, I think, 2018, 2019, there’ll be a lot more subtle than it is direct. I think looking for Dodd-Frank to be repealed or Glass-Steagall to change, that’s really unlikely. I think it’s more of an attitude shift that occurs over the time, and I think we don’t see much change on that in the next year. I think bank examinations are gonna be pretty much the same that they are now.

CM: In fact we’ve seen a slight increase, what I would say I call regulatory incidents where there’re banks who have been cited for not having as strong of a BSA, bank secrecy, or the AML, anti-money laundering, standards are strong as the Fed and FDIC want. A couple of companies have to correct those. They should be able to handle it with no issue, but it’s just an example that the regulators are still watching. I think regulation is gonna be a much more of a modest and slow change. But attitudes investors really is what’s changed, and I think the attitude is that the regulatory environment is going to get better. Even if it’s a 2019 event, it is getting better, and therefore they have a better ability to make a commitment to invest dollars in the space.

Tim: Now, an interesting thought, and this just popped into my mind this morning because I saw an article that a group of guys are actually starting a bank in Austin, Texas. They had previously started one in San Antonio. Does the changed perception of the regulatory environment perhaps see the return of De Novo banks?

CM: So there’s a new De Novo in Texas, as you mention. There’s a new De Novo in Atlanta, that we’re aware of. I believe there’s one or two on the West Coast that may come eventually. The regulators had already been becoming more open towards a handful of De Novos. Even if the election didn’t change the attitude of regulation, I think that these De Novos were going to happen. I think if anything the regulatory bodies had wanted to demonstrate that they’re at least willing to do a couple. I still think a couple is the operative word. I don’t think it’s gonna be a land shift. I think that the attitude towards new De Novo banks is definitely much different than it was in 2003-2006, that era where we had hundreds of new banks. I just don’t see it coming back to that.

CM: The capital might be there, but I think the structure of what regulators want, and the straitjacket that they put new banks under is going to make it more conducive for existing banks to re-capitalize or reset their business plans, and that becomes the de facto De Novo.

Tim: Okay. Now, how about your outlook for M&A activities? M&A has been very strong in the last few years with regulatory costs with the smaller banks being often cited as a reason. Does M&A slow down if there is some sort of regulatory reform, or is this more of a secular trend that’s just gonna keep going?

CM: I think it’s definitely a secular trend. I think M&A is here to stay. I think if anything, M&A accelerates because of higher prices. Currencies really drive M&A. What happens over time is that stock prices tend to have wider dispersion in terms of their valuations. That is beginning to develop, and I think it will continue to occur as 2017 unfolds, and what that means is that there’s a bigger spread on the price-to-tangible-book, and as that happens, the buyers distinguish themselves from the sellers, and more transactions can happen.

CM: There are still many boards of directors who I would say are tired by the environment. They certainly were scared by what went on during the financial crisis years, and they remember what it felt like. And when they’re given an opportunity to come out at a reasonable price, and particularly when they can take strong currencies from the buyer, I think there’s enough banks who will say yes and take that on. I think the decision was made a long time ago that they would like to sell. It was just a question of when they could get a reasonable price. This is still an ego game, and the egos don’t like when they have to take a low price, and something that is seen to be less than a real market bid. Now, that pricing has come back, I think egos can very much be massaged into feeling good about a particular M&A transaction, and that the pricing is much better.

CM So I still think the number of M&A deals will be higher at ’17 versus ’16 and ’15, and I think that there are gonna be some banks who decide not to sell because they feel a little bit less pressure from the regulations. But honestly, I think there’s enough boards who want to get a transaction done because the pricing is better, and that they can get a price that they can be happy with and feel good about. That’s where I think the ego comment is important ’cause I think this is an exercise in human behavior as much as it is finance.

Tim: Okay. That’s an excellent point. And I’ve talked about tired board syndrome for some time, and I think especially those with older boards and officers, I think they’ve wanted out for a long time, and I think you’re quite correct about the pricing environment making it a lot easier for them to do so. Now, regulatory cost has been cited as one of the big issues in the industry, but more and more it looks to me like a lot of banks are facing some serious technology spending challenges. Can you comment on that?

CM: It’s a great point, Tim. It’s interesting. I meant to mention, and I’ll mention it here, the concept of cyber security in the regulatory framework is awfully important. In fact, I would say that cyber might drive certain companies out of the business, A, because the regulators are as serious as a heart attack about banks and boards of directors being all in on cyber. That’s in spending, and it’s also just an attitude commitment that you have to be vigilant 24/7 on cyber security, and you have to be on guard, and if you’re not, that’s gonna create regulatory decimation where there’s gonna be chiefs of companies who just can’t take it, and they have to move on.

CM: So I feel like the cyber and the tech spending is still a real topic, and that if anything, companies might be investing savings that they’re getting on taxes… If we get tax reform, or frankly better spreads, which I think are going to happen, you might see companies taking the revenue from a better margin, and perhaps stronger net income because of taxes, and reinvesting some of those profits back into technology spending to not only make sure that they’re in line with the rest of the Jones’, but also that they’re ahead, that they can anticipate the problems. The cyber issues, large and small are still out there.

CM: And I hate to say this, but I believe it’s gonna be proven true that it’s gonna take an incident of public knowledge knowing that banks had issues and that they had to respond. It’s always worried me that only BBT and JP Morgan are the two most vocal banks about cyber. We haven’t seen enough banks being vocal about what they spend and how they do it. And I think unfortunately an incident’s gonna have to change that. I hope it doesn’t happen, but history suggests that that’s the type of thing that creates change in the industry. But again, I think there are plenty of boards who recognize that the regulators are not gonna let go of cyber, nor should they. And I think the new president is just as committed to cyber as anybody else out there.

Tim: Yeah. And the thing is, when you talk to the bankers and you talk to the cyber security guys, the guys on the other side of the equation, this technology is not cheap and it’s ongoing. Because every time you block one sort of attack, well the bad guys come up with another one and you gotta spend some money to tackle that one. It’s not a one time thing. It’s an ongoing thing. And I think a lot of bankers are daunted by it.

CM: Unfortunately, you’re 100% correct. This is the time of the year, the holiday season, where the cyber criminals are very active. The fact that you had Christmas on the weekend may have helped, but by the same token, it will be interesting to see what comes out. Last year, there were several banks who got targeted with debit card scams galore. And it was an unfortunate nuisance but it’s all wrapped up into the whole cyber security arena of discussion.

Tim: Yeah. You talked about the banks needing to disclose it more and it’s interesting that you said that because at our conference in Dallas last year, I found out that at these conferences you learn an enormous amount sitting at the bar. [chuckle] One fellow who was on the board of a not big bank, like 500 million, said that they average 10,000 attempts a day. Whether it be phishing or trying to commit fraud or just crack through the firewalls, 10,000 attacks a day at this small little bank. And I think this is much more widespread than people realize.

CM: No, it is. And I think that the email fraud is rampant as well. There’s not a CEO or CFO who hasn’t told me that they get emails all the time requesting to wire funds. It’s almost becoming comical, that their internal people know that we have to follow up with a phone call in multiple ways to get money wired internally to pay vendors just doesn’t come because a CEO asks via email to wire some money, X dollars. That unfortunately continues to be a good example of incidents that are occurring in the industry.

Tim: Okay. Now, as long as we’re on technology, the FinTech threat, how real is it? Are they really gonna make banks obsolete?

CM: Oh, I don’t think so. I think we see banks who are continued to be focused on branches because it’s the center point of how to do business. A branch is not just a place to go in and get a cup of coffee and a donut and to make a deposit. It’s really a way that you know a bank is in your neighborhood. And I think we’re gonna see banks in 2017 on a select basis really use the branch for a very strong purpose, which is as a marketing tool in the area. Having it be a first class facility, in a first class street corner, but using that as the epicenter for their own calling effort. Where they’re going out and calling on people individually so that that personal relationship, one on one, still occurs. And it’s not necessarily at the branch but it originates from the branch. And that employee at the bank has a cubby hole or an office there that they use that as a springboard to go drive the community and have cups of coffee and lunches and meet with people in their office and close business and solve problems.

CM: That sort of door-to-door service is where we’re going. And I think that’s where the industry is gonna take a mixture of the really good tools that are available for mobile and check truncation and then deliver that with the face to face service so that customers can tell the bank what they need, what they’re looking for, and the bank can come back and respond. I think the branch is alive and well. I think that the number of branches certainly is changing, the focus of branches is changing. But it’s gonna be a blend of technology and physical infrastructure that gets it done. Every bank in the country is finding ways of doing more with less that will continue to play out in 2017. But to our earlier point in technology, companies are spending money, they have to. And recently a CFO tell me pretty directly that, “I’ll spend a dollar all day to make two or three dollars in revenue,” and I think that’s where we’re heading. Most investors and analysts are probably tired of hearing the term operating leverage, which is really getting revenues growing faster than expenses.

CM: But it’s true, operating leverage is real important that it happens in a positive way at banks. And I think that’s gonna become one of those terms we hear often, just like we hear ROA and price to book and return equity and margin. We’re also gonna hear about operating leverage and whether a bank does or doesn’t do that over time.

Tim: How likely is it that… ‘Cause I think the way the whole FinTech scenario plays out is I think the banks end up acquiring a lot of these technologies outright. Is that a realistic view?

CM: I think so, and if you think about it, the banks have more currency now. The fact they have stocks that they can use to do small equity deals, absolutely. And I think in many respects the marketplace would embrace that. It’s a way of getting thin comments aways and being sharper. I think you’re also gonna see alliances come. I encourage investors to take a look at what Fifth Third is doing. They announced a alliance in September where the company out of Atlanta called GreenSky that does home improvement lending and not only are they buying loans from GreenSky but they’re also licensing their technology and the technology is very sharp, it’s very regulatory friendly, but it allows Fifth Third to kinda rethink their own internal processes and that’s gonna help them not only save money but also create more revenue over time. That’s a real good example where FinTech and the banking industry overlap and I think it can actually be very helpful for each other.

Tim: Yeah. I think that the FinTech lenders in particular have to look to sell their license to the bank because the technology maybe wonderful, but at heart, they’re non-depository lender and first time there’s a liquidity crisis they’re in trouble.

CM: Absolutely, and I think I’ve talked about this before. Deposits are the life blood of the banking industry and the banking industry does extend into the FinTech and those lenders and most of those lenders do not have a good cost of funds. They have a high cost of funds and that’s where the banks win. The banks who have a cost of funds between 20 and 30 and 40 basis points, they can deliver a meaningful spread, and again that’s where the ticket is. We’ve seen companies try to go the securitization route. That certainly works. We’ve seen companies get partnerships with banks. We’ve seen success at GreenSky, as I mentioned, and SoFi is another good example. But at the end of the day banks and their low cost of funds is really what’s gonna win out and that’s where I think the partnership with the online lenders is going. I just that some of them had admitted it and some have not.

Tim: Okay, good point. Alright, now, let’s move to loan classifications and categories because the regulators earlier this year, they expressed some concerns about commercial real estate concentrations and there is a fear that it will go from a gentle suggestion to a regulation talking the 100, 300 rule. Can you comment a little bit on that?

CM: Sure. It’s a fair point and I think that it’s a fair expectation. Like a lot of things, the regulators can only hint at things so long and there comes a point where they have to make it more of an official rule. And while we may not necessarily get an official ruling, it’s gonna become more direct. The interesting thing to me is that the technical rule takes all four categories of real estate which are gonna be construction, multi-family, owner occupied and the non-owner occupied and lump them together for the concentration ratio. For the most part, the owner occupied real estate, Tim, has been excluded from the conversation, but in the Fed and FDIC guidelines, they really include it. They have the ability just like the traffic cop to create a letter of the law expectation that this is the letter of the law and we expect you to abide by it and if you’re above that level, we wanna know why. I think that there is going to be more, and they already have been, changes made as banks diversify away from commercial real estate and it’s both good and bad.

CM: It’s bad because there are some really good lenders in real estate who know how to make very good money from the concentration despite their concentration and they’ve had really good credit scores, but I think they’re gonna naturally back down. But it’s also positive and that it forces banks to find a way to be not only creative, but I think also focused on other categories. C&I lending is something that some banks are good at and other banks are not, but we could see that purchased. I think more banks are purchasing loans from each other to try to get themselves some diversity. I think you’re gonna see banks focus on the consumer area and not necessarily trying to match car loans or match the online lenders, but really trying to find where they can have niches. We’ve seen BBT be successful for years in the lending on recreation vehicles and they’ve done that quite well. They’ll take a higher loss rate, but they also have a really nice spread so that it works out in their favor net net. I think more banks are gonna adopt that model.

CM: We’ll probably see more banks buying paper in the consumer area to get some exposure there. All because they wanna at least send the signal to the regulators that they’re listening and making progress. The other point I’d make is that the concentration is not just a statistical exercise. It’s really more of a focus of the bank and are they paying attention. There are banks who have and will continue to have high concentration in real estate but it’s really how they manage it, they manage it well. If you look at an Eagle Bank, for example, EGBN, their concentration numbers may come down over time, but they’re still gonna have a concentration. It’s what they do. They manage it very well and I think that they have a good regulatory relationship and they’re able to work within the guidelines even though their statistic may look high, they have had a really good track record for a long long time. And in a lot of respects, they are model citizen and shows that it can be done. A lot of it is focus, but I do think your general point’s accurate that we are gonna see more banks having to limit their commercial real estate.

CM: There is a lot of companies that I think have to improve their internal processes in terms of how they track real estate and that’s really what the regulators want. They want to see banks getting deeper on their own book of business so they know where the issues are and they can respond when there are problems because that was the big lesson learned from the financial crisis, is that banks had too much real estate and too much construction and they didn’t know how to respond or what to do and that I think is… We’re definitely educating a better financial system and a better financial institutions industry as a result of this sort of regulatory guideline that continues to be talked about louder.

Tim: Are there any loan categories that you’re a little concerned about at this point where you’re seeing that, “Oh, that might be a problem down the road?”

CM: So multi-family has grown a lot. It’s been the biggest growth category. I think that multi-family is something to watch. At the end of the day, multi-family’s a function of supply and demand. If the supply and demand are in balance, multi-family will be fine. We think that there has been a lot of attention paid to multi-family the past six months, and that banks have already made changes and pulled back and changed behavior. That’s very positive already. It gets back to the job growth and the economic activity. If the economic activity is positive, it’s going to sop-up the supply. I feel like multi-family, while it is asterisk in terms of being something to watch, I don’t feel that the problems are gonna be that high. And I think there’s a lot of companies, perhaps in the New York area, who get cited for having a concentration of multi-family, but generally those loans are performing very well. We’re seeing some signs at the high-end. It’s slipping a little bit, but for the most part, a lot of your rent controlled buildings in the big urban areas like New York continue to perform really well.

Tim: Okay. It doesn’t really like it’s… Goin’ back to the commercial side of it, it doesn’t look like there’s any cracks in the market. It may not appreciate as much as it had over the last five years, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to go down a bunch, which basically means it’s an okay time to be a lender in that sector, doesn’t it?

CM: I think it does, and I think, to me the attitude is that companies have to build reserves. And so one of the things that could happen if the corporate tax rate gets cut is that you can see companies actually investing those dollars back into reserves. And that would be a really healthy thing. The reserve argument for years has always been that the SEC and the accounting firms do not wanna see banks using the reserves as a cookie jar where they set ’em aside without any rationality and they pull ’em out when they need it. But the reality is, reserves and equity go hand in hand, and it’s a really healthy thing. I think the regulators are mistaken sometimes for not having more reserves. I think banks are gonna get better at putting reserves aside and really documenting it. What we’re hearing companies do is getting more creative about how they document putting those loans and loan-loss reserves up.

CM: So the challenge for the industry is loan-loss rates, are very low. You have a lot of companies who have charge-off rates below 20 basis points, so if they have a 1% reserve, they effectively have five years of coverage. And five years of coverage is pretty doggone strong. But 20 basis points can easily become 40, and that’s the point that I think banks are gonna hang their hat on is that we may have a low loss rate in ’17 but we can’t guarantee that in the future. And I think forecasting higher loses, there’s nothing wrong with being conservative. So we do have a new, accounting standards that’s gonna go into place in 2020, called CECL, which is gonna be kind of expecting losses. Instead of going historical, it’s gonna be more forecasting, and I think you gonna see banks get creative to be pretty cautious and pretty conservative in expecting the future. It’s a way for them to justify high reserves.

Tim: Okay. Now when we talked last December, doing a little year-ahead look, you had suggested that bank book-values you thought in ’16 would grow probably right around 7%, and I think you came in pretty close to the actual number. How does that look for 2017?

CM: Okay. So fourth quarter’s gonna be a reset because fourth quarter gonna have to mark-to-market on having interest rates go up as much as they have. We’ve seen 70 basis points, approximately the 10-year increase from the end of September to where we are here in late December. That, unfortunately, is gonna create a negative mark-to-market for the available for sale securities. But I think most banks will probably only will probably only see book-value go down. I think net-net about 1%, maybe less. That’s because earnings will still be very good for the quarter. So for example, banks may take a 2% hit on the book-value from the mark-to-market, but they may make one-and-a-half or so back in terms of their profits for the quarter. So that’s really gonna be the net change, less than a percent. So I feel like we will see a little bit of that noise, quarter-to-quarter, in ’17, Tim, but I think a 6% growth rate is still a pretty good number to have, because I think the industry will have a good year, and even if interest rates go up and we have a little bit of mark-to-market negativity, it’ll still be a positive on net net.

Tim: Okay. Any final thoughts on the community bank space for investors as we go into 2017?

CM: So we’ve seen a lot of stocks go from 90% a book to now 120 and 130 a book and some that gone from 120 to 150. Historically, this group has more to run. That doesn’t mean we don’t see profit-taking because I think that would be healthy in the first part of the year, but I think there’s room for a price to book to expand. And again, as we just talked about, book-value should rise for the year. So, if we can see the price to book expand, and we could see the book-value itself per-share expand, it’s not a bad thing for the industry. The challenge is we’ve seen 25% plus returns in banks in the last two months, and that always is lovely while it lasts, but we have to be realistic that this an industry that probably… If we can get a 9% to 10%, or a 10% to 12% return each year, that’s pretty solid, and will be my expectation for this year after the big move we’ve had.