Monday, May 2, 2016

DCF Myth 3: You cannot do a valuation, when there is too much uncertainty!

Uncertainty, both imminent and resolved, has been on my mind these last two weeks. I posted my valuation of Valeant on April 20, making the argument that, at least based on my expectations on what could be revealed in the delayed financial filings, the stock was worth about $44, approximately $12 more than the prevailing stock price. Many of you were kind enough to comment on my valuation, and one of the more common refrains was there were too many unknowns on the stock to be taking a stand. In fact, one of the comments on the post was that "regardless of the valuation, a sufficient margin of safety does not exist (on the stock)". On April 21, we got news that Volkswagen had come to an agreement with US authorities on the compensation that they would offer buyers of their cars and a day later, the company announced that it would take an $18.2 billion charge to cover the costs of its emissions misrepresentations. It was a chance for me to revisit my valuation of Volkswagen, in the immediate aftermath of the scandal in October 2015, and take stock of how the the investment I made in the stock then looks, as the uncertainty gets slowly resolved. All through these last two weeks, there were signs that Yahoo's journey, that was starting to resemble the Bataan Death March lately, was nearing its end, as the company reviewed bids for its operating assets. Since it is a stock that I valued almost two years ago (and bought after the valuation) and labeled as a Walking Dead company, I am interested, both financially and intellectually, to see how this end game plays out. As I wrestle with the resolution of uncertainties from the past and struggle with uncertainties in the future on every one of my investments, I thought it would be a good time to look at good and bad ways of responding to I uncertainty in investing and valuation.

The Uncertainty Principle
Uncertainty has always been part of human existence, though it has transitioned from the physical uncertainty that characterized the caveman era to the economic uncertainty that is more typical of today, at least in developed markets. Each generation, though, seems to think that it lives in the age of the greatest uncertainty. That may be partially a reflection of a broader sense of "specialness" that afflicts each generation, where it is convinced that its music and movies were the very best and that it had to get through the biggest challenges to succeed. The other is a variation of hindsight bias, where we can look at the past and convince ourselves that what actually happened should have been obvious before it occurred. I am surprised at how many traders, investors and portfolio managers, who lived through the 2008 crisis, have convinced themselves that November 2008 was not that bad and that there was never a chance of a catastrophic ending.  That said, uncertainty not only ebbs and flows over time but also changes form, making enduring fixes and lessons tough to find. As investors bemoan the rise of uncertainty in today's markets, there are three reasons why they may feel more under siege now than in prior decades:
  1. Low Interest Rates: In my post on negative interest rates, I pointed to the fact that as interest rates in many of the leading currencies have dropped to historic lows, risk premiums have increased in both stock and bond markets. The expected return on the S&P 500 in early 2008, before the crisis, was 8% and it remains at about that level today, even though the treasury bond rate has dropped from 4% to less than 2%, but the equity risk premium has risen to compensate. Even though the expected return may be the same, the fact that more of it can be attributed to a risk premium will increase the market reaction to news, in both directions, adding to price volatility.
  2. Globalization: Globalization has not only changed how companies and investors make choices but has also had two consequences for risk. The first is that there seem to be no localized problems any more, with anyone's problem becoming everyone's problem. Thus, political instability in Brazil and too much local government borrowing to build infrastructure in China play out on a global stage, affecting stock prices in the rest of the world. The second is that the center of global economic power is shifting from the US and Europe to Asia, and as it does, Americans and Europeans are starting to bear more of world's economic risk than they used to.
  3. Media/Online Megaphones: As an early adopted of technology, I am far from being a Luddite but I do think that the speed with which information is transmitted around the world has allowed market risks to go viral. It is not just the talking heads on CNBC, Bloomberg and other financial news channels that are the transmitters of these news but also social media, as Twitter and Facebook become the place where investors go to get breaking investing news.
I am sure that you can add other items to this list, such as the disruption being wrought by technology on established businesses, but I am not sure that these are either uncommon or unusual. Every decade has its own disruptive factors, wreaking havoc on existing business models and company values.

The Natural Responses to Uncertainty
Much of financial theory and a great deal of financial practice was developed in the United States in the second half of the last century and therein lies a problem. The United States was the giant of the global economy for much of this period, with an economy on an upward path. The stability that characterized the US economy during this period was unusual, if you look at long term history of economies and markets, and much as we would like to believe that this is because central bankers and policy makers learned their lessons from the great depression, there is the very real possibility that it was just an uncommonly predictable period. That would also mean that the bedrock of financial practice, built on extrapolating from past data and assuming mean reversion in all things financial, may be shaky, and that we have to reevaluate them for the economies that we operate in today. It is unfair to blame the way we deal with uncertainty entirely on the fact that our practices were honed in the United States. After all, it is well chronicled in both psychological annals and behavior studies that we, as human beings, deal with uncertainty in unhealthy ways, with the following being the most common responses:
  1. Paralysis and Inaction: The most common reaction to uncertainty, in my experience, is inaction. "There is too much uncertainty right now to act" becomes the refrain, with the promise that action will come when more of the facts are know. The consequences are predictable. I have friends who have almost entirely been invested in money market funds for decades now, waiting for that moment of clarity and certainty that never seems to come. I have also talked to investors who seem to view investing when uncertain as a violation of value investing edicts and have found themselves getting pushed into smaller and smaller corners of the market, seeking elusive comfort.
  2. Denial and Delusion: At the other end of the spectrum, the reaction that other investors have to uncertainty is go into denial, adopting one of two practices. The number crunchers fall back on false precision, where they add more detail to their forecasts and more decimals to their numbers, as a defense against uncertainty. The story tellers fall back on story telling, acting as if they have the power to write the endings to every uncertain narrative, when in fact they have little control over either the players or the outcome.
  3. Mental Accounting and Rules of Thumb: The brain may be a wondrous organ but it has its own set of tics that undercut investing, when uncertain. As Richard Thaler has so convincingly shown in his work on mental accounting, investors and analysts like to use rules of thumb, often with no basis in fact or reality, when making judgments. Thus, a venture capitalist who is quick to dismiss the use of intrinsic value in a young start-up as too fraught with estimation error, seems to have no qualms about forecasting earnings five years out for the same company and applying a price earnings ratio to those earnings to get an exit value.
  4. Outsourcing and Passing the Buck: When stumped for answers, we almost invariably turn to others that we view as more knowledgeable or better equipped than we are to come up with solutions. Cynically, you could argue that this allows us to avoid taking responsibility for investment mistakes, which we can now attribute to consultants, text book writers or that person you heard on CNBC. 
  5. Prayer and Divine Intervention: The oldest response to uncertainty is prayer and it has had remarkable staying power. There are large segments of the world where big investment and business decisions are preceded by prayers and divine intervention on your behalf. 
If the first step in change is acceptance, I have come to accept that I am prone to do some or all of the above, when faced with uncertainty, but I have also discovered that these reactions can do damage to my portfolio. 
Dealing with Uncertainty
To reduce, if not eliminate, my unhealthy responses to uncertainty, I have developed my own coping mechanisms that will hopefully push me on to healthier tracks. I am not suggesting that these will work for you, but they have for me, and please feel free to modify, abandon or adjust them to your own needs.
1. Have a narrative: As many of you who read this blog know, I have long believed that a company valuation without a story to bind it together is just numbers on a spreadsheet and a story that uses no numbers at all is a fairy tale. There is another advantage in having a narrative underlie your valuation and tying numbers to that narrative. When faced with uncertainty about specifics, the question that I ask is whether these specifics affect my narrative for the company and if yes, in what way. In my valuation of Volkswagen, right after the diesel emissions scandal, I did not find a catastrophic drop in value for the company because my underlying narrative for Volkswagen, that of a mature business with little to offer in terms of expansion or growth opportunities, was dented but largely unchanged as a result of the scandal. With Valeant, in my November 2015 valuation, I argued that the attention brought to the company by its drug pricing policies and connections to Philidor would result in it having to abandon its strategy of growth driven by acquisitions and growth and to shift to being a less exciting, lower growth pharmaceutical company. That shift in narrative drove the inputs into my valuation and my lower assessment of value. 
2. Categorize uncertainty: Uncertainty can come from many sources and it is useful, when valuing a company in the face of multiple uncertainties, to classify them. Here are my groupings:


Since it is easy to miss some uncertainties and double count others, I find it useful to keep them isolated in different parts of my valuation:


Specifically, in my Volkswagen and Valeant valuations, it was micro risk that concerned me, with some of that risk being continuous (the effect of the diesel emissions scandal on Volkswagen car sales) and some being discrete (the fines levied by the EPA on Volkswagen and the risk of default in Valeant). That is why both companies, at least in my conventional valuations, have low costs of capital, notwithstanding the risky environment, but their values are then adjusted for the expected costs of the discrete events occurring.
3. Keep it simple:  This may seem ironic but the more uncertainty there is, the simpler my valuation models become, with fewer inputs and less levers to move. One reason is that it allows me to focus on the variables that really drive value for the company and the other is that it reduces my need to estimate dozens of variables in the face of uncertainty. Thus, in my valuations of start-up companies, my focus is almost entirely on three variables: revenue growth, operating margins and the reinvestment needed to sustain that growth. 
4. Make your best estimates: As I start making my estimates in the face of uncertainty, I hear the voice in the back of my mind pipe up, saying "You are going to be so wrong!" and I silence it by  reminding myself that I don't have to be right, just less wrong than everyone else, and that when uncertainty is rampant, most investors give up.
5. Face up to uncertainty: Rather than cringe in the face of uncertainty and act like it is not there, I have found that it is freeing to admit that you are uncertain and then to take the next step and be explicit about that uncertainty. In my valuations of tech titans in February 2016, I used probability distributions for the inputs that I felt most shaky about and then reported the values as distributions. Since some of you have been curious about the mechanics of this process, I will take a lengthier journey through the process of running simulations in a companion piece to this post.
6. Be willing to be wrong: If you don't like to be wrong, it is best not  to value companies in the face of uncertainty. However, if you think that Warren Buffet did not face uncertainty in his legendary investment in American Express after the salad oil scandal in 1964 or that John Paulson knew for sure that his bet against the housing bubble would pay off in 2008, you are guilty of revisionist history. There is a corollary to this point and it relates to diversification. As I have argued in my post on diversification, the more uncertain you feel about individual investments, the more you have to spread your bets. It is not an admission of weakness but a recognition of reality.

If you are a value investor, you will notice that I have not mentioned one of value investors' favorite defenses against uncertainty, which is the margin of safety. Seth Klarman is one of my favorite investment thinkers but I am afraid that the margin of safety, at least as practiced by some in the investing community, has become an empty vessel, an excuse for inaction rather than a guide to action in risky times. I will come back to this measure as well in another post in this series.

Conclusion
If you are an active investor, you are constantly looking for an edge, something that you can bring to the table that most other investors cannot or will not, that you can exploit to earn higher returns. As the investing world gets flatter, with information freely accessible and available to almost all investors, and analytical tools that anyone can access, often at low cost, being comfortable with uncertainty may very well be the edge that separates success from failure in investing. There may be some who are born with that comfort level, but I am not one of them. Instead, my learning has come the hard way, by diving into companies when things are most uncertain and by valuing businesses in the midst of market crises, "by going where it is darkest". That journey is not always profitable (see my experiences with Vale as a precautionary note), sometimes makes me uncomfortable (as I have to make forecasts based upon little or bad information), but it is never boring. I am wrong a hefty percent of the time, but so what? It's only money! I am just glad that I am not a brain surgeon!

YouTube Video

Uncertainty Posts
  1. DCF Myth 3: You cannot do a valuation, when there is too much uncertainty
  2. The Margin of Safety: Excuse for Inaction or Tool for Action?
  3. Facing up to Uncertainty: Probabilities and Simulations
DCF Myth Posts
Introductory Post: DCF Valuations: Academic Exercise, Sales Pitch or Investor Tool
  1. If you have a D(discount rate) and a CF (cash flow), you have a DCF.  
  2. A DCF is an exercise in modeling & number crunching. 
  3. You cannot do a DCF when there is too much uncertainty.
  4. The most critical input in a DCF is the discount rate and if you don’t believe in modern portfolio theory (or beta), you cannot use a DCF.
  5. If most of your value in a DCF comes from the terminal value, there is something wrong with your DCF.
  6. A DCF requires too many assumptions and can be manipulated to yield any value you want.
  7. A DCF cannot value brand name or other intangibles. 
  8. A DCF yields a conservative estimate of value. 
  9. If your DCF value changes significantly over time, there is either something wrong with your valuation.
  10. A DCF is an academic exercise.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Valeant: Information Vacuums, Management Credibility and Investment Value

As an investor, would you buy shares in a company that is at the center of a political and legal firestorm? What if this company has a CEO who has lost the faith of his board and an ex-CFO who is being accused of shady financial practices? And would you pull  the buy trigger if the company has delayed its scheduled annual filing by more than two months, and by doing so is running the risk of violating debt covenants and being pushed into default? And to top it all off, would you be a little worried  if the largest investor in the stock, a well known activist with his reputation and wealth on the line, is now calling the shots? No way, you say! At the right price, I would, and that is the reason that I decided to revisit my Valeant valuation last week, six months after I valued it for the first time, in the aftermath of a crisis born of hubris and happenstance. In structuring this post, I will draw on an old-time consulting matrix, where companies were classified into stars, cash cows, dogs and question marks, to illustrate the transience of these classifications, since Valeant has cycled through the entire matrix in a year.

Valeant, the Star
Valeant's rise from an obscure Canadian drug company to pharmaceutical star has been well chronicled and rather than drown you in prose, I think it is best captured in this picture, which shows the increase in market value (market cap and enterprise value) and operating numbers (revenues and operating income), especially between 2009 and 2015:
Source: S&P Capital IQ
During a period when other pharmaceutical companies were struggling with revenue growth and profit margins, Valeant outstripped them on both counts, growing revenues at almost 43% a year while posting higher operating profit margins than the rest of the sector. At least on the surface, the company seemed to be delivering the best of all combinations: high growth with high profitability.

So, how did Valeant pull of this feat? In an earlier post on the company, in November 2015, I argued that the Valeant business model was a stool with three legs: growth from acquisitions, with the acquisitions funded primarily with debt, followed by a strategy of increasing prices on "under priced" drugs.

The unique combination of growth and profitability made the company a target for value investors, making it a favored stop for investors as diverse as Bill Ackman, the activist investor, and the Sequoia Fund, a storied mutual fund, and a dominant part of their portfolios. In their defense, not only were these investors transparent about their big bets on Valeant, but at least until September 2015, their concentration was viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. In fact, when I posted on why diversification is a necessary component of even a value investing strategy, it was these two investors that were held up as a counters to my argument.

To see the allure of Valeant to value investors, let me go back to mid-year last year, when the company's business model was going strong, its stock price was higher than $200/share and its enterprise value exceeded $100 billion. If the intrinsic value of a company is driven by cash flows from existing assets, value-creating growth and low risk, Valeant looked attractive on almost every dimension:

Valeant was not only delivering the value trifecta, high revenue growth in conjunction with high operating profit margins and generous excess returns, but was doing so on steroids (taking the form of low taxes and high debt). One note of caution even then, though, was that the business model was built on an architecture of acquisitions, with acquisition accounting playing a large role in pushing up operating profitability and lowering taxes.  If you were unfazed by the acquisition accounting effect and assumed that the company could continue to deliver this combination going forward, the value per share that you would have obtained for the company would have been more than $200/share. 
Download spreadsheet
In estimating the value, I did lower the compounded revenue growth for Valeant to 12% for the next ten years, but that translates into revenues more than tripling over the decade. 

From Star to Cash Cow
While many trace Valeant's fall to September and October of 2015, when short sellers launched an assault on its links to Philidor, an online pharmacy, the business model was already under pressure in the months prior, a victim of its own financial success. The model was designed, in my view, to operate under the radar, since key parts of it (the drug pricing and acquisition accounting) would wither under exposure. While much of what Valeant did in 2010 and 2011, when the company was not a household name, went unnoticed, its actions in 2015, when it was a higher profile company, drew attention from unwelcome sources. The company's acquisition of Salix increased the scrutiny, both because of it's size and partly because the Salix drugs that Valeant acquired (and repriced) affected more people (and drew more complaints). The Philidor revelations pushed these concerns into hyperdrive and the stock lost almost 55% of its value in September and October, dropping from $180/share to $80/share.

In my November post, I rehashed much of this story and argued that even if Valeant were able to survive legal and regulatory scrutiny, the company would never be able to return to its old business model. In effect, even in the absence of more bad news, Valeant would have to be run like other pharmaceutical companies, reliant on R&D, rather than acquisitions, for (more anemic) growth. Removing the debt-funded acquisitions and the drug repricing  from the business model yielded a company with lower revenue growth (3% a year, rather than 12%), lower margins (a pre-tax operating margin of 43.66%, instead of 49.82%) and higher taxes (with an effective tax rate of 20% replacing 16.51%).

Download spreadsheet

Note that these numbers were reflective of more conventional drug companies and reflect a profitable, albeit slow-growth business. With these numbers, though, the value per share that I obtained for Valeant was about $77, down substantially from its star status, but the market price, at $82, was higher. 

From Cash Cow to Dog?
If there were dark clouds on the horizon for Valeant in November 2015, the months since have only made them darker for four reasons:
  1. Information blackout: In November 2015, when I valued Valeant, I used the most recent financial filings of the company, from October 2015,  to update my numbers. Almost six months later, there have been no financial filings since, and the 10K that was expected to be filing in February 2016 was delayed, ostensibly because the company was still gathering information, and that delay has extended into April. 
  2. Managerial Double talk: In the intervening months, Valeant’s managers have been in the news, almost as often giving testimony to Congress, as holding press conferences. Arguing, as they did, that they grew through R&D like any other pharmaceutical company and that their revenue increases came mostly from volume growth (rather than price increases) was so much at odds with the facts that they became less credible with each iteration. Michael Pearson’s hospitalization for an undisclosed illness, just before Christmas, was something that was out of the company’s control but its handling added to the air of opacity around the company. 
  3. Legal Jeopardy: The Philidor entanglement, the original source of the crisis, did not go away. In fact, the company, after claiming that separation from Philidor would be low-cost and easy backtracked in January and February with disclosures that suggested deeper links, with the potential for legal problems down the road. 
  4. Debt load: Debt is a double edged sword, increasing earnings per share and providing tax benefits in good times but potentially making bad times worse. That argument got backing from what happened at Valeant, a company that accumulated more than $30 billion in debt during its acquisition binges, with about half of that debt being added on during 2015. That debt came with the added covenant that if financial disclosures were not filed by March 30, 2015, the firm could technically be in default, a possibility that spooked markets. 
Without financial disclosures from the company, a management that seemed to be making up stuff as it went along and the possibility of a debt covenant being triggered, it is not surprising that the market marked down Valeant’s stock price further:


This price collapse, following last year’s swoon, has reduced the market capitalization of the company to $11 billion, almost 85% lower than its value a year prior. In late March 2016, the company announced that Michael Pearson would be stepping down as CEO, the clearest sign yet that there will no return to the old business model, and Bill Ackman increased his involvement of the company in a bid to preserve what was left of his investment in the company and more importantly, his reputation as a savvy activist investor.

With the stock trading at $32, the question of whether the stock is a good buy now looms large. Compared to my November 2015 estimate, the answer is an emphatic yes, but the caveat is that a great deal has happened to the company’s fundamentals during the last six months that could have shifted the value down significantly. The problem that I face, like any other investor in Valeant, is that in the absence of financial filings, there are no numbers to update. The solution seems simple. Wait for the delayed filing to come out in late April, early May or later, and use that updated information in my valuation. That is the low-risk option, but I think that it is also a low return option, since if the filing contains good news (that revenues have held up and profit margins remain healthy), the stock price will adjust before my valuation does. The alternative is scary, but it has a bigger payoff. I could try to make a judgment on Valeant’s value now, before the information comes out, and follow through by buying or selling the stock. In arriving at this value, here are some of the adjustments that I chose to make:
  1. The Dark Side of Debt: The debt at Valeant has become more burden than a help, as it has not only triggered worries about covenants being violated but has opened up the possibility that that the company will have trouble making its payments. In fact, Moody's lowered the bond rating for Valeant to B1, well below investment grade, in March 2016, causing an increase in the cost of capital used in the valuation from 7.52% (in my November 2016 valuation) to 8.29%. The secondary impact is that there is a chance now that Valeant's going concern status may be jeopardized by its debt commitments; I assume a 5% chance of this occurrence in conjunction with the assumption that a forced liquidation of its assets will come at a discount of 25% on fair value. 
  2. The Bad News in Delay: Delayed news is almost never good news and there are two key operating numbers where the delayed report can contain bad news. The first is that the company may restate revenues, reflecting its separation from Philidor and perhaps for other undisclosed reasons. The second is that the company may reveal that some or all its acquisition-related expensing from prior years may have been overdone, resulting in some or a big chunk of these expenses being moved back into the operating expense column. In my valuation, I will assume (and cheerfully admit that this is based on no news) that the revenue reduction will be small (about 2%) and that half of all acquisition expenses will be shifted to operating expenses, reducing the pre-tax operating margin to 40.39% (from the 43.66% that I used in November 2015). 
Since I had already assumed that the existing business model was dead in my November 2015 valuation, I don't see any need to lower revenue growth further or to raise the effective tax rate. The value that I obtain with these updated numbers is below:
Download spreadsheet
The value per share that I obtain for Valeant is $43.66, higher than the stock price ($32) at the time of this analysis. That value, though, is clearly a bet on what the delayed financials will deliver as a surprise. One way to measure the exposure that you have to this risk is to measure value as a function of how much of a revenue and earnings surprise you get from the report:

Is there a chance that the earnings report could contain news that make Valeant a bad investment at $32? Of course, and you will have to make your own judgment on that possibility, but based upon my priors (uninformed though they might be), it looked like a good investment at $32, late last week, and I own it now. 

Conclusion
I am sure that Valeant will be used to draw many lessons and I will extract my share in future posts about acquisition accounting, activist investing and corporate finance. The first is that acquisition accounting is rife with inconsistencies and plays into investor biases and preconceptions about companies. The second is that cookbook corporate finance, with its dependence on metrics and magic bullets, can have disastrous consequences when it overwhelms the narrative. The third is that activist investing, notwithstanding its successes, has two weak links: concentrated portfolios and investors who can become too wedded to their investment thesis.   I will continue to draw on Valeant as an illustrative example of how quickly views on a company and its business model can change in markets and why absolutism in investing (where you know with certainty that a business model is great or awful, that a stock is cheap or expensive) is an invitation for a market takedown. 

YouTube Video


Attachments
  1. Value of Valeant as Star (September 2015)
  2. Value of Valeant as Cash Cow (November 2015)
  3. Value of Valeant as Dog (April 2016)
 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Negative Interest Rates: Impossible, Unnatural or Just Unusual?

In the years since the 2008 crisis, there is no question in finance that has caused more angst among investors, analysts and even onlookers than what to do about "abnormally low" interest rates. In 2009 and 2010, the response was that rates would revert back quickly to normal levels, once the crisis had passed. In 2011 and 2012, the conviction was that it was central banking policy that was keeping rates low, and that once banks stopped or slowed down quantitative easing, rates would rise quickly. In 2013 and 2014, it was easy to blame one crisis or the other (Greece, Ukraine) for depressed rates. In 2015, there was talk of commodity price driven deflation and China being responsible for rates being low. With each passing year, though, the conviction that rates will rise back to what people perceive as normal recedes and the floor below which analysts thought rates would never go has become lower. Last year, we saw short term interest rates in at least two currencies (Danish Krone, Swiss Franc) become negative and this year, the Japanese Yen joined the group, with rumors that the Euro may be the next currency to breach zero. While it has been difficult to explain the low interest rates of the last few years, it becomes doubly so, when they turn negative. I would be lying if I said that negative interest rates don't make me uncomfortable, but I have had to learn to not only make sense of them but also to live with them, in valuation and corporate finance. This post is a step in that direction.

Setting the table
There are a handful of currencies that have made the negative interest rate newswire, but it is worth noting that the rates that are being referenced in many of these stories are rates controlled by central banks, usually overnight rates for banks borrowing from the central bank. In March 2016, there were two central banks that had set their controlled rates below zero (Switzerland and Sweden) and two more (ECB and Bank of Japan) that had set the rate at zero. (Update: The ECB announced that it would lower its rates below zero on March 10.)
February 2016
Note that these are central bank set rates and that short and long term market interest rates in these currencies can take their own path. To provide a contrast, consider the Japanese Yen and Euro, two currencies where the central banks have pushed the rates they control to zero. In both currencies, short term market interest rates have in fact turned negative but only the Yen has negative long term interest rates:

In a post from earlier this year, I looked at long term (ten-year) risk free rates in different currencies, starting with government bond rates in each currency and then netting out sovereign default spreads for governments with default risk. Updating that picture, the government bond rates across currencies on March 9, 2016, are shown below:
Ten-year Government Bond Rates - March 9, 2016
Joining the Japanese Yen is the Swiss Franc in the negative long term interest rate column. Why make this distinction between central bank set rates, short term market interest rates and long term interest rates? It is easier to explain away negative central bank set rates than it is to explain negative short term interest rates and far simpler to provide a rationale for negative rates in the short term than negative rates in the long term. Thus, there have been episodes, usually during crises, where short term interest rates have turned negative, but this is the first instance that I can remember where we have faced negative long term rates on two currencies, the Swiss Franc and the Japanese yen, with the very real possibility that they will be joined by the Euro, the Danish Krone, the Swedish Krona and even the Czech Koruna in the near future.

Interest Rates 101
I am not a macroeconomist, have very little training in monetary economics and I don't spent much time examining central banking policies. Keep that in mind as you read my perspective on interest rates, and if you are an expert and find my views to be juvenile, I am sorry. That said, I have to process negative interest rates, using my limited knowledge  of what determines interest rates.

Intrinsic and Market-set Interest Rates
When I lend money to another individual (or buy bonds issued by an entity), there are three components that go into the interest rate that I should demand  on that bond. The first is my preference for current consumption over future consumption, with rates rising as I value current consumption more. The second is expected inflation in the currency that I am lending out, with higher inflation resulting in higher rates. The third is an added premium for any uncertainty that I feel about not getting paid, coming from the default risk that I see in the borrower. When the borrower is a default-free entity, there are only two components that go into a nominal interest rate: a real interest rate capturing the current versus future consumption trade off and an expected inflation rate.
Nominal Interest Rate = Real Interest Rate + Expected Inflation Rate
This is, of course, the vaunted Fisher equation.  There is an alternate view of interest rates, where the interest rate on long term bonds is determined by the demand and supply of bonds, and it is shifts in the demand and supply that drive interest rates:

How do you reconcile these two worlds? To the extent that those demanding bonds are motivated by the need to earn interest that covers the expected inflation and generate a real interest rate, you could argue that in the long term, the intrinsic rate should converge on the market set rate.

In the short term, though, as with any financial asset, there is a real chance that the market-set rate can be lower or higher than the intrinsic rate. What can cause this divergence? It could be investor irrationality, where bond buyers overlook their need to cover inflation and earn a real rate of return. It could be a temporary shock to the supply or demand side of bonds that can cause the market-set rate to deviate; this is perhaps the best way to think about the "flight to safety" that occurs during every crisis, resulting in lower market interest rates. There is one more reason and one that many investors seem to view as the dominant one and I will address it next.

The Central Bank and Interest Rates
In all of this discussion, notice that I have studiously avoided bringing the central bank into the process, which may surprise you, given the conventional wisdom that central banks set interest rates. That said, a central bank can affect interest rates in one of two ways:

  • The first and more conventional path is for the central bank to signal, through its actions on the rates that it controls what it thinks about inflation and real growth in the future, and with that signal, it may alter long term rates. Thus, the Fed lowering the Fed funds rate (a central bank set rate that banks can borrow from the Fed Window) will be viewed as a signal that the Fed sees the economy as weaken and expects inflation to stay subdued or even non-existent, and this signal will then push expected inflation and real interest rates down. This will work only if central banks are credible in their actions, i.e., they are viewed as acting in good faith and with good information and are not gaming the market. 
  • The second channel is for the central bank to actively enter the bond market and buy or sell bonds, thus affecting the demand for bonds, and interest rates. This is unusual but it is what central banks in the United States and the EU have done since 2008 under the rubric of quantitive easing. For this to have a material effect on interest rates, the central bank has to be a big enough buyer of bonds to make a difference. 
Thus, as you read the news stories about the Japanese central bank and the ECB considering negative interest rates, recognize that they cannot impose these rates by edict and that all they can do is change the rates that they control and let the signaling impact carry the message into bond markets.

Measuring the Fed Effect
Just ahead of the Federal Open Market Committee meetings last year, as debate about whether the Fed would ease up on quantitative easing, I argued that we were over estimating the effect that the Fed had on market set rates and that while it has contributed to keeping rates low for the last six years, an anemic economy was the real reason for low interest rates. To compute the Fed effect, I chose to track two numbers:
  • An intrinsic interest rate, computed by adding together the actual inflation each year and the real growth rate each year, two imperfect proxies for expected inflation and the real interest rate.
  • The ten-year US treasury bond rate at the start of each year, set by the bond market, but affected by expectation setting and bond buying by the Fed.
The graph below captures both numbers, updated through 2015:

Note how closely the US treasury bond has tracked my imperfect estimate of the intrinsic interest rate, and how low the intrinsic rate has become, post-crisis. At the risk of repeating myself, the Fed has, at best, had only a marginal impact on interest rates during the last six years and it is my guess that rates would have stayed low with or without the Fed during this period.

Negative Interest Rates
Turning to the question at hand, is it possible for nominal interest rates to be negative, based upon fundamentals? The answer is yes, but with a caveat. If the preference for current consumption over future consumption dissipates or gets close to zero and you expect deflation in a currency, you could end up with a negative interest rate. In fact, that is the common thread that runs through the economies (Japan, the Euro Zone, Switzerland) where rates have become negative.

Now, comes the caveat. If you have nominal negative interest rates, why would you ever lend money out, since you have the option of just holding on to the money as cash. Historically, that has led many to believe that the floor on nominal rates should be zero. As rates go below zero, it is time to reexamine that belief. One way to reconcile negative interest rates with rational behavior is to introduce costs to holding cash and there are clearly some to factor in, especially in today's economies. The first is that while the proverbial stuffing cash under your mattress option is thrown around as a choice, you will increase your exposure to theft and may have to invest in security measures that are costly. The second is that there are some transactions that are extraordinarily cumbersome to get done with cash; imagine buying a million dollar house and counting out the cash for the payment. The Danish, Swiss and Japanese governments are embarking on a grand experiment, perhaps, of how much savers will be willing to pay for the convenience of staying cashless. In effect, the lower bound has shifted below zero but there is still one. To those who are convinced that negative interest rates have nothing to do with fundamentals and that they are entirely by central bank design, I would argue that the only reason that these central banks have been able to push rates below zero, is because real growth and inflation have become so low in their economies that the intrinsic rate was close enough to zero to begin with. There is no chance that the Brazilian and Indian central banks will follow suit.

Interest Rates, Financial Assets and the Real Economy
When central banks in these currencies strongly signal their intent to drive interest rates to zero and below, what could be the motivation? Put simply, it is the belief that lower interest rates lead to higher prices for financial assets and more real investment in the economy, either through the mechanism of "lower" hurdle rates for investments or a weaker currency making businesses more competitive globally. In this central banking heaven, where central banks set rates and the world meekly follows, this is what unfolds:

So, why has it not worked? As interest rates in the US, Europe and Japan have tested new lows each year for the last few, we have not seen an explosion in real investment in these countries, and while stock prices have risen, the rise has had as much to do with higher earnings and cash flows, as it has to do with lower interest rates. In my view, the fundamental miscalculation that central banks have made is in assuming that their actions not only affect other pieces of this puzzle but are also read as signals of the future.  In particular, central bankers have failed to incorporate three problems: that interest rates do not always follow the central bank lead, that risk premiums on equity and debt may increase as rates go down and that exchange rate effects are muted by other central banks acting at the same time. In this reality-based central banking universe, the lowering of rates by central banks can have unpredictable and often perverse consequences, lowering financial asset prices, reducing real investment and making a currency stronger rather than weaker.

This is all hypothetical, you may say, but there is evidence that markets have become much less trusting of central banking and more willing to go their own ways. For instance, as the risk free rate has dropped over the last few years, note that the expected return for stocks has stayed around 8% during that period, leading to higher and higher equity risk premiums.

While bond markets initially did not see this phenomenon, last year default spreads on bonds in every ratings class widened, even as rates dropped. Interestingly, the most recent ECB announcement that they would push the rates they control lower was accompanied by news that they would enter the bond market as buyers, hoping to keep default spreads down. That is an interesting experiment and I have a feeling that it will not end well.

Dealing with Negative Interest Rates
My interests in negative interest rates are primarily in the context of valuation and corporate finance. In both arenas, the hurdle rates we use to pick investments and value businesses build off a long term risk free rate as a base and having that base become a negative value is disconcerting to some. There are two choices that you have:
  1. Switch currencies: You can value Danish companies in Euros or US dollars, where long term rates are still positive (albeit very low). This evades the problem, but you can run but you cannot hide. At some point in time, you will have to work in the negative interest rate currency.
  2. Normalize risk free rates: This is a practice that has become more prevalent in both the US and Europe, where risk free rates have dropped to historic lows. To compensate, analysts are using the average rate across long periods as a normalized risk free rate. I have problems with this approach at three levels. The first is that normal is in the eye of the beholder and what you call a normal 10-year T.Bond rate is more a function of your age than scientific judgment. The second is that given that the risk free rate is where you plan to put your money if you don't make your real investment, it seems singularly dangerous for this to be a made-up number. The third is that using a normalized risk free rate with the high equity risk premiums that are prevalent today will lead to too high a hurdle rate, since the latter are primarily the result of low risk free rates.
  3. Leave the risk free rate negative: So, what if the risk free rate is negative? In valuation, you almost never use the risk free rate standing alone, but only in conjunction with a risk premium. If you can update those risk premiums, they may very well offset the effect of having a negative risk free rate and yield a cost of equity and/or debt that does not look different from what it did prior to the negative interest rate setting. There is one other adjustment that I would make. In stable growth, I have been a proponent of using the risk free rate as your cap on the stable growth rate. With negative risk free rates, I would stick with this principle, since, as I noted earlier in this post, negative interest rates signify economies with low or no real growth combined with deflation and the growth rate in perpetuity for stable companies in these economies should be negative for those same reasons.
What Real Negative Interest Rates Signify
When interest rates of from being really small positive numbers (0.25% or 0.50%) to really small negative numbers (-0.25% to -0.50%), the mathematical consequences are small but I do think that breaching zero has consequences and almost all of them are negative.
  1. The economic end game: For those who ultimately care about real economic growth and prosperity, negative interest rates are bad news, since they are incompatible with a healthy, growing economy. 
  2. Central banks insanity, impotence and desperation: As I watch central bankers preen for the cameras and hog the limelight, I am reminded of the old definition of insanity as trying the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. After six years of continually trying to lower rates, with the expectation of economic growth just around the corner, it is time for central banks to perhaps recognize that this lever is not working. By the same token, the very fact that central banks revert back to the interest rate lever, when the evidence suggests that it has not worked, is a sign of desperation, an admission by central banks that they have run out of ideas. That is truly scary and perhaps explains the rise in risk premiums in financial markets and the unwillingness of companies to make real investments. 
  3. Unintended consequences: As interest rates hit zero and go lower, there will be some investors, in need of fixed income, who will look in dangerous places for that income. A modern-day Bernie Madoff would need to offer only 4% in this market to attract investors to his fund and as I watch investors chase after yieldcos, MLPs and other high dividend paying entities, I am inclined to believe that is a painful reckoning ahead of us. 
  4. An opening for digital currencies: In a post a few years ago, I looked at bitcoin and argued that there will be a digital currency, sooner rather than later, that meets the requirements of trust needed for a currency in wide use. The more central bankers in conventional currencies play games with interest rates, the greater is the opening for a well-designed digital currency with a dependable issuing authority to back it up.
In the next few weeks, I am sure that we will read more news stories about central banks professing to be shocked that markets have not done their bidding and that economies have not revived. I am not sure whether I should attribute these rantings to the hubris of central bankers or to their blindness to market realities. Either way, I feel less comfortable with the notion that central bankers know what they are doing and that we should trust them with our economic fates.

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