Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Financial meltdown catalyzes suicides

German billionaire Merckel

Frenchman and investor Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet

And, more recently, an attempted suicide by Marcus Shrenker.

Even if they didn’t opt for the ultimate and most permanent of solutions, like Messrs. Merckle and Villehuchet, with the SP500 down almost half in 2008, the average investor and/or 401K holder was feeling plenty blue as 2008 wound down.

Small consolation, but things have also been as tough, sometimes much tougher, percentage-wise, for other legends of business and finance. It appears none will miss lunch, as a result, but still, they felt the cold slap of ignominy right in the chops, along with all the other “long term” investors. For many, the blow is coming at the end of a long and illustrious career.

Even the “Babe Ruth” of investing was not immune.

Warren Buffett, 78, and his Berkshire Hathaway stock did not escape from the meltdown. The stock declined from approximately $151,000 per share, to $74,100 at its low ($99,700 per at this writing). That doesn’t make him particularly unique in an environment when the SP lost half its value. The strange twist here is that the creator of the phrase “derivatives….weapons of financial mass destruction” himself was an avid participant in the options market, generating a loss of an estimated $3.7 billion. He sold LEAP puts on some $37 billion of equities with maturities ranging from 2019 to 2027 – exercisable only at maturity, not before.

Maybe it’s a clever strategy to sell puts for a time in the future when you may or may not be around, but still, they get marked to market, and have apparently created a real short term difficulty. Some opine that this is the reason Berkshire invested in Goldman Sachs, the broker for this transaction. Goldman counterparties were concerned about their counterparty risk, the thinking here goes, and demanded more collateral in case of continued stock decline (even though the original bet did not require any collateral due to the seemingly impregnable state of BRK finances, impregnable to this point, at least). As a result, Berkshire Hathaway credit default swap rates climbed to five full points, from one-half point earlier in the year. Could the decline in stocks last a decade or more?

Sheldon Adelson, developer of the Las Vegas Sands, injected some $525 million of his own funds to keep his gambling empire from defaulting on its debt and going into bankruptcy. Additionally, he converted $475 million in convertible notes into common stock. To raise another billion, he more than doubled the number of shares outstanding, sold them at $6, and massively diluted the holdings of existing shareholders. That left him with 51% of the company, versus an earlier 69%. At the time of the announcement, the stock had traded down from $145 to the $4s over a 12 month period. As recently as Sept. 2007, he was the Forbes No. 3, with an estimated net worth of $28 billion. At this writing, with a stock price of some $5.50, market cap for LVS was approximately $2 billion; Adelson’s half worth now just $1 billion, a loss of $27 billion in one year.

Kirk Kerkorian, 91, saw his MGM Mirage stake fall in value from $14 billion to $2 billion, a loss of $12 billion. The company owns approximately half the rooms on the Las Vegas strip. Additionally, he is selling his $1 billion stake in Ford (6.4% of the co.) for 2/3rds less, a loss of $700 million since the summer. He bought the shares because the company had a good quarter earlier in the year and he had confidence in the Ford CEO Alan Mulally. Kerkorian reportedly told friends recently that he had “lived one year too long.” Kerkorian was No. 27 on the Forbes 400 when his net worth was listed at $11.2 billion.

Sumner Redstone, 85, via his holding company National Amusements sold some $233 million of stock in Viacom and CBS after he breached a $1.6 billion loan provision which catalyzed a margin call from lenders. As recently as early October, the shares were worth $420 million, creating a paper loss of $187 million. Few knew he had so much debt, and fewer still that it was tied to stock values at CBS and Viacom. Additionally, his 25-year investment in a video game maker, Midway Games (and its predecessor), has cost him between $500 and $700 million, according to one analyst. Midway makes the game Mortal Kombat; it hasn’t been profitable since Q2 2000. Over the past three years alone, it has lost $258.9 million in operations. In 2005, shares in Midway were $23; recently, they sold for less than one dollar. Redstone’s life has been described as a soap opera, with turbulent divorces (including one now in real time), estrangements from his daughter and son, and employees, including the likes of Tom Cruise, who he excoriated in the media after his erratic behavior on various high profile media outlets. Some speculate Redstone could lose control of his media empire, but the octogenarian has already survived worse: the protagonist once saved his life during a hotel fire by crawling out on a ledge until help arrived. He underwent 30 hours of surgery, and was not expected to survive. He was 56. He did indeed survive. On Nov. 11, Redstone told media he promised to forego any further sales of CBS or Viacom stock. Analysts weren’t so sure; some said the situation may be beyond his control. The Harvard graduate was recently No. 25 on the Forbes 400.

Aubrey K. McClendon, Chesapeake Energy Corp.’s CEO, was forced by a margin call to sell most of his shares in his firm. He received some $620 million for shares that earlier in the year were worth $2.3 billion: loss: $1.68 billion. In October, 2008 published a press release that said he had "involuntarily sold substantially all of his shares of Chesapeake common stock over the past three days in order to meet margin loan call." It went on to say: “I am very disappointed to have been required to sell substantially all of my shares of Chesapeake. These involuntary and unexpected sales were precipitated by the extraordinary circumstances of the worldwide financial crisis. In no way do these sales reflect my view of the company's financial position or my view of Chesapeake's future performance potential. I have been the company's largest individual shareholder for the past three years and frequently purchased additional shares of stock on margin as an expression of my complete confidence in the value of the company's strategy and assets. My confidence in Chesapeake remains undiminished, and I look forward to rebuilding my ownership position in the company in the months and years ahead." He was recently No. 134 on the Forbes 400.

Iceland’s former billionaire, Gjorgolfur Gudmundsson, 67, with his son, owned a large stake in Landsbanki. One year ago, the stake was worth $3.1 billion. Now, zero. His son, Thor, 41, had a net worth three times that of his father as of March, 2008. But in October, 2008, his investment firm had to sell a stake in a Finnish telecom for $310 million to pay debts. He still had stakes, however, in a Polish telecom group, and an Icelandic generic drug firm.

Three Russian oligarchs felt the pinch, too. Oleg Deripaska, Alisher Usmanov, and Kostyantin Zhevago, lost $600 million, $2.1 billion and and $515 million, respectively.

The aforementioned luminaries were captains of industry, builders of corporations. Even though their losses are staggering, breathtaking, none may be described as “plungers,” like the spectacular speculator from the 1920s and 1930s, Jesse Livermore, on whom the famous Reminiscences of a Stock Operator was modeled.

Now, unfortunately, some are meeting his same fate.

After surviving those tumultuous decades, and making and losing several fortunes, Livermore, 63, suffering from depression, ended it all with a shot to the head in the cloakroom of New York’s Sherry Netherland Hotel in 1940. He left an eight-page suicide note

(“My dear Nina: Can’t help it. Things have been bad with me. I am tired of fighting. Can’t carry on any longer. This is the only way out. I am unworthy of your love. I am a failure. I am truly sorry, but this is the only way out for me. Love Laurie”).

Strangely to some, he left behind approximately $5 million in capital which was apparently tied up in trusts and cash. In the final analysis, it’s all “left behind,” some point out. With that thought in mind, suffice to say, no necessary motivation to hasten the process oneself. It will happen, all by itself, and soon enough......

Byron Wien: $1200 gold for 2009

WESTPORT, Conn. - (Business Wire) Byron R. Wien, Chief Investment Strategist of Pequot Capital Management, Inc., today issued his list of Ten Surprises for 2009. Mr. Wien has issued his economic, financial market and political surprises annually since 1986. The 2009 list follows:

1. The Standard and Poor’s 500 rises to 1200. In anticipation of a second-half recovery in the U.S. economy, the market improves from a base of investor despondency and hedge fund and mutual fund withdrawals. The mantra changes from “fortunes have been lost” to “fortunes can still be made.” Higher quality corporate bonds, leveraged loans and mortgages lead the way.

2. Gold rises to $1,200 per ounce. Heavy buying by Middle Eastern investors and a worldwide disenchantment with paper currencies drive the price of precious metals higher. In a time of uncertainty, investors want something they can count on as real.


Monday, January 05, 2009