Wednesday, May 4, 2016

4/5/16: Talent Is a Problem, But so Is Financial Services Model

When it comes to talent, hedge funds tend to hoover highly skilled and human capital-rich candidates like no other sub-sector. Which means that if we are to gauge the flow of talent into the general workforce, it is at the Wall Street, not the Main Street, where we should be taking measure of the top incoming labour pool. And here, Roger, we have, allegedly, a problem.

Take Steven Cohen, a billionaire investor hedge fund manager of Point72 (USD11 billion AUM). The lad is pretty good thermometer for ‘hotness’ of the talent pool because: (a) he employs a load of talented employees in high career impact jobs; (b) he tends to train in-house staff; (3) he operates in highly competitive industry, where a margin of few bad employees can make a big difference; and (4) courtesy of the U.S. regulators, he ONLY has his own skin in the game.

Cohen was speaking this Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference about how he is "blown away by the lack of talent" of qualified incoming staff, saying that it is ”not easy to find great people. We whittle down the funnel to maybe 2 to 4 percent of the candidates we're interested in… Talent is really thin."

His fund hires only approximately 1/5th of its analysts and fund managers externally, with the balance 4/5ths coming from internal training and promotion channels.

The sentiment Cohen expressed is not new. International Banker recently featured an article by a seasoned Financial Services recruiter, who noted that “…many firms are finding it hard to attract the right candidates—and also failing to comprehend the true cost of finding the “right hire”” (see here:

Some interesting insights into shifting candidates preferences and attitudes and the mismatch these create between the structure and culture of Financial Services employment can be gleaned from this article: In particular, notable shifts in candidates’ culture with gen-Y entering the workforce are clearly putting pressure on Financial Services business model.

2015 study by Deloitte (see here: summed up changes in Generational preferences for jobs in a neat graph:

And the business graduates’ career goals? Why, they are less pinstripes and more hipster:

In simple terms, it is quite unsurprising that Cohen is finding it difficult to attract talent. While supply of graduates might be no smaller in size, it is of different quality in expectations (and thus aptitude). Graduates’ expectations and values have shifted in the direction where majority are simply no longer willing to spend 5 years as junior analysts working 20 hour days 7 days a week in a sector that does pay well, but also faces huge uncertainties in terms of forward career prospects (to see this, read:

Which means, High Finance is in trouble: its business model does not quite allow for accommodating changing demographic trends in career development preferences. Until, that is, the tech bubble blows, leaving scores of talented but heavily hipsterized graduates no other option but to bite the bullet and settle into one of those 5-years long bootcamps.

NB: Incidentally, recently I was a witness to a bizarre conversation between a graduate and a senior professor. A graduate - heading by her own admission into a Government sector job in international policy insisted that the job requires her to be entrepreneurial, 'almost running [her] own business’. The faculty member supported her assertion and assured that she teaches students how to run their own businesses in courses she provides on... international diplomacy and policy. Not surprisingly, neither one of the two ever ran a business.

The hipster haven ideals of ‘we are all so creative, we can run a business from our college dorms’ run deep. And they are not about the blood and sweat of actually running a business, nor the risk of going into the world penniless and earning nothing for years on end while the business is growing. Instead, entrepreneurship for the young is all about perceived fun of doing so.

There will be tears upon collision with reality.

3/5/16: U.S. Recovery: It's Poor, Judging by Historical Comparatives

Recent research note from Deutsche covering the U.S. economy posted an interesting chart on the U.S. growth dynamics since 1980:
The note, of course, makes the point about volatility of the GDP growth in the current recovery not being out of the ordinary. But the average rate of growth in the chart above is.  Which means one little thingy: the average rate of growth is structurally lower in the present episode than in the previous three post-recession recoveries. And that is before we look at the peak-to-trough falls in GDP during the recession which was more dramatic than in any previous recession plotted in the chart. Average rate of growth in the current recovery falls outside the -1STDEV range for two out of three previous recoveries.

So here we have it: recovery is not robust. Not even strong. It is, quite frankly, very poor.

3/5/16: Banks Have Way Bigger Problems Than Low Interest Rates

Almost not a day goes by without someone, somewhere in the media whingeing about the huge toll low interest rates take on banks profitability. This is pure red herring put forward by banks' analysts that have an intrinsic interest in sugar-coating the reality of the banking sector failure to adapt to post-GFC environment.

In its international banking sector review for 2015, McKinsey & Company research (see here: briefly tackled the pesky issue of banking sector profit margins and their sensitivities to current interest rates environments.

Here’s what McKinsey had to say on interest rates ‘normalisation’ and its impact on banks’ margins:

Source: McKinsey & Co

Do note that 2.3 bps Return on Equity uplift in the case of Eurozone banks is in basis points, on top of 2014 ROE for Eurozone banks of 3.2%. Which would push ROE to 5.5% range.

Here are the conclusions: “In our analysis, however, even if rates rise broadly – a big if – banks will not do as well as many expect; margins will not jump back to previous levels. Much of the benefit will get competed away, and risk costs will likely increase, especially in economies where the recovery is still fragile. …On average, banks in the Eurozone and the U.S. would see jumps in ROE of about 2 percentage points, but these gains would still not lift returns above COE (Cost of Equity). And as the “taper tantrum” of 2013 showed, the reaction of markets to a change in central bank policy is far from clear; unforeseen problems could easily overshadow any gains from a rate rise.”

So to sum this up:

1) Let’s stop whingeing about poor banks squeezed by low interest rates: these banks face zero or even negative cost of funding which subsidies their unsustainable business model; the same banks are also benefiting from a massive monetary subsidy (low interest rates reduce loans defaults and prolong cash extraction period for the banks prior to loan default materialisation);
2) Even if interest rates are ‘normalised’, the banks won’t be able to cover the cost of equity through their normal operations; and
3) The real reason banks are bleeding profits is because they are incapable of reforming their business models and product offers and are, as the result, suffering from challengers taking chunks out of traditional banks’ most profitable business strategies.

But, more on this in my forthcoming article for the International Banker.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

2/5/16: There's Only One Position of Integrity on TTIP: Kill It

In a recent op-ed in FT, Wolfgang Münchau raised a very valid point that globalisation, free trade and markets liberalisation do produce both winners and losers. Nothing new here. But the key point is that this realisation must be timed / juxtaposed against political and social realities on the ground

Quoting from Münchau (emphasis is mine): “In the past two years, there has been a dramatic reversal of public opinion in Germany about the benefits of free global trade in general, and TTIP in particular. In 2014, almost 90 per cent of Germans were in favour of free trade, according to a YouGov poll. That has fallen to 56 per cent. The number of people who reject TTIP outright has risen from 25 per cent to 33 per cent over the same period of time.  These numbers do not suggest that the EU should become protectionist. But… [EU leaders] should be more open-minded about the political costs of this agreement. …A no to TTIP would at least remove one factor behind the surge in anti-EU or anti-globalisation attitudes.

The marginal economic benefits of the agreement are outweighed by the political consequences of its adoption.

What advocates of global market liberalisation should recognise is that both globalisation and European integration have produced losers. Both were supposed to produce a situation in which nobody should be worse off, while some might be better off.”

See the full text here:

Perhaps it is this dynamic - of the excess supply of losers and the over-concentration of winners - that is behind the dire state of global trade growth:

Wolfgang Münchau's article came in days ahead of the leaks that revealed the duplicit nature of EU and U.S. negotiating positions on TTIP (see Leaked TTIP documents cast doubt on EU-US trade deal), well before we knew that (again, emphasis is mine) "These leaked documents give us an unparalleled look at the scope of US demands to lower or circumvent EU protections for environment and public health as part of TTIP. The EU position is very bad, and the US position is terrible. ...The way is being cleared for a race to the bottom in environmental, consumer protection and public health standards."

In simple terms, TTIP is risking to further magnify the chasm between the winners in the Agreement (larger corporates on both sides of the Atlantic, plus Governments) and the losers (consumers, small firms and entrepreneurs).

The documents reveal that under the TTIP, "American firms could influence the content of EU laws at several points along the regulatory line, including through a plethora of proposed technical working groups and committees." If so, the TTIP will only increase bureaucratic costs and amplify impact of large corporates lobbying power at the expense of smaller firms and start ups.

As bad as the U.S. position, is, EU's position is even worse. Despite making lots of political noise about protecting European consumers, environmental and health standards etc, the EU negotiators have clearly adopted a two-faced-Janus position vis-a-vis different stakeholders. For example, on many points of more controversial U.S. proposals, "the EU has not yet accepted the US demands, but they are uncontested in the negotiators’ note, and no counter-proposals have been made in these areas." In other words, the EU leadership is saying one thing to the European audiences (advancing a virtuous position of a defender of consumer rights and environment) while positing no explicit objection to the U.S. proposals. In simple terms, the EU leadership appears to be outright lying and manipulating public opinion.

How do we know this?

"In January, the EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström said the precautionary principle, obliging regulatory caution where there is scientific doubt, was a core and non-negotiable EU principle. She said: “We will defend the precautionary approach to regulation in Europe, in TTIP and in all our other agreements.” But the principle is not mentioned in the 248 pages of TTIP negotiating texts." In plain English, Malmström is lying.

Another example: "The public document offers a robust defence of the EU’s right to regulate and create a court-like system for disputes, unlike the internal note, which does not mention them." Again, what is said for public consumption is at odds to what the EU is saying at the negotiating table.

Wolfgang Münchau pointed that "The marginal economic benefits of the agreement are outweighed by the political consequences of its adoption".  

But you can also add to his equation negative social consequences of the TTIP and adverse consequences to SMEs and entrepreneurs. By the time you do the sums, it is clear that TTIP is not an agreement about free trade, but an agreement about corporatist  system takeover of transcontinental trade and investment flows. As such, its marginal benefits are negative to begin with.

2/5/16: Top 100 People To Follow To Discover Financial News On Twitter 2016 Rankings

Delighted to be included in the StreetEye's second annual The Top 100 People To Follow To Discover Financial News On Twitter listing:

Great company all around!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

27/4/16: The Debt Crisis: It Hasn't Gone Away

That thing we had back in 2007-2011? We used to call it a Global Financial Crisis or a Great Recession... but just as with other descriptors favoured by the status quo 'powers to decide' - these two titles were nothing but a way of obscuring the ugly underlying reality of the global economy mired in a debt crisis.

And just as the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis have officially receded into the cozy comforters of history, the Debt Crisis kept going on.

Hence, we have arrived:


U.S. corporate debt is going up, just as operating cashflows are going down. And so leverage risk - the very same thing that demolished the global markets back in 2007-2008 - is going up because debt is going up faster than equity now:

As ZeroHedge article correctly notes, all we need to bust this bubble is a robust hike in cost of servicing this debt. This may come courtesy of the Central Banks. Or it might come courtesy of the markets (banks & bonds repricing). Or it might come courtesy of both, in which case: the base rate rises, the margin rises and debt servicing costs go up on the double.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

27/4/16: MIIS Team Comes Second in 2015-2016 The Economist MBA Case Competition

Well done to our MBA students at MIIS ( on taking the second place in The Economist MBA case competition: Real Vision Investment Case Study. See the details of the case study here: The winners were from Ryerson University. Our students second place project is described here: Awesome result!

This comes on foot of 2015 win by MIIS team in The Economist MBA case competition: Muddy Waters Investment Competition, the details of which are available here:

Which, of course, attests not only to the brilliance of students, but also to the consistently top quality of the programme.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

24/4/16: Silicon Valley Blues Go Into a Sax Solo...

In recent weeks, I have been covering growing evidence of pressures in the ICT sector bubble (the Silicon valley blues of shrinking VC valuations and funding). You can track this coverage from here:

Now, with its usual tardiness, the Fortune arrives to the topic too, in a rather good exposition here:

Good summary graphic from Renaissance Capital:

But, of course, what is more interesting in the sector development is the horror show of earnings reporting that is unfolding across mature segment of the tech sector. These are well-covered here:, offering the following summary:

So let's see: earnings in mature segment are falling or the 5th quarter in a row (even when you control for Apple performance); earnings of Apple (tech leader) are into their second consecutive quarter of severe pressures. And unicorns (which don't even offer any serious basis for fundamentals-based valuations, including those on the basis of earnings) are rapidly taking on water. You don't really need a CFA to get this one right...

Friday, April 22, 2016

22/4/16: Russian Economy: Renewed Signs of Pressure

Earlier this week, I posted my latest comprehensive deck covering Russian economy prospects for 2016-2017 (see here: Key conclusion from that data was that Russian economy is desperately searching for a domestic growth catalyst and not finding one to-date.

Today, we have some new data out showing there has been significant deterioration in the underlying economic conditions in the Russian economy and confirming my key thesis.

As reported by BOFIT, based on Russian data, “Russian economy has shrunk considerably from
early 2015. Seasonally adjusted figures show a substantial recovery in industrial output in the first three months of this year. Extractive industries, particularly oil production, drove that growth with production in the extractive sector rising nearly 3.5 % y-o-y. Seasonally adjusted manufacturing output remained rather flat in the first quarter with output down more than 3 % y-o-y.”

As the result, “the economy ministry estimates GDP declined slightly less than 2% y-o-y in 1Q16. Adjusting for the February 29 “leap day,” the fall was closer to 2.5%.”

Meanwhile, domestic demand remained under pressure. Seasonally adjusted volume of retail sales fell 5.5% y/y and is now down 12% on same period in 2014. “Real household incomes contracted nearly 4% y-o-y. Driven by private sector wage hikes, nominal wages rose 6 % y-o-y, just a couple of percentage points less than the pace of 12-month inflation.”

A handy chart:

Oil and gas production, however, continued to boom:

What’s happening? “Russian crude oil output was up in January-March by 4.5% y-o-y to record levels. Under Russia’s interpretation of the proposed production freeze to January levels, it could increase oil output this year by 1.5‒2%. The energy ministry just recently estimated that growth of output this year would only reach 0.5‒1%, which is quite in line with the latest estimate of the International Energy Agency (IEA). However, Russia’s energy ministry expects Russian oil exports to increase 4‒6% this year as domestic oil consumption falls.”

It is worth noting that the signals of a renewed pressure on economic growth side have been present in advanced data for some time now.

Two charts below show Russian (and other BRIC) Manufacturing and Services PMIs:

Both indicate effectively no recovery in the two sectors in 1Q 2016. While Services PMI ended 1Q 2016 with a quarterly average reading of 50.0 (zero growth), marking second consecutive quarter of zero-to-negative growth in the sector, Manufacturing PMI posted average reading of 49.1, below the 50.0 zero growth line and below already contractionary 49.7 reading for 4Q 2015.

Russia’s composite quarterly reading is at 49.9 for 1Q 2016 an improvement on 4Q 2015 reading of 49.1, but still not above 50.0.

In simple terms, the problem remains even though its acuteness might have abated somewhat.

21/4/16: Drama & Comedy Back: Grexit, Greesis, Whatever

Back in July last year, I wrote in the Irish Independent about the hen 'latest' Greek debt crisis: Optimistically, I predicted that a full-blown crisis will return to Greece in 2018-2020, based on simple mathematics of debt maturities. I was wrong. We are not yet into a full year of the Greek Bailout 3.0 and things are heading for yet another showdown between the Three-headed Hydra the inept Greek authorities, the delusional Germany, and the Lost in the Woods T-Rex of the IMF.

Predictably, IMF is still sticking to its Summer 2015 arithmetic: Greek debt is simply not adding up to anything close to being sustainable: an example of the rhetoric here. Meanwhile, the FT is piping in with a rather good analysis of the political dancing going on around Greece: here. The latter provides a summary of new dimensions to the crisis:

  1. Brexit
  2. Refugees crisis
But there is a kicker. Greece is now in a primary surplus: latest Eurostat figures put Greek primary balance at +0.7% GDP for 2015, well above -0.25% target. And Greek Government debt actually declined from EUR320.51 billion in 2013 to EUR319.72 billion in 2014 and EUR311.45 billion in 2015. This can and will be interpreted in Berlin as a sign of 'improved' fiscal performance, attributable to the Bailout 3.0 'reforms' and 'assistance'. The argument here will be that Greece is on the mend and there is no need for any debt relief as the result.

Still, official Government deficit shot from 3.6% of GDP in 2014 to 7.2% in 2015. Annual rate of inflation over the last 6 months has averaged just under -0.1 percent, signalling continued deterioration in economic conditions. Severe deprivation rate for Greek population rose to the crisis period high in 2015 of 22.2 percent, up on 21.5 percent in 2014. Industrial production on a monthly basis posted negative rates of growth in January and February 2016, with February rate of contraction at -4.4% signalling a disaster state, corresponding to 3% drop on the same period 2015. Volume of retail sales fell 2.2% y/y in January marking fourth annual rate of contraction in the last 5 months. Unemployment was 24% in December 2015 (the latest month for which data is available), which is down from 25.9% for December 2014, but the decline is more likely than not attributable to simple attrition of the unemployed from the register, rather than any substantial improvement in employment.

In simple terms, Greece remains a disaster zone, with few signs of any serious recovery around. And with that, the IMF will have to continue insisting on tangible debt relief from non-IMF funders of the Bailout 3.0.

It is a mess. Which probably explains why normally rather good Washington Post had to resort to a bizarre, incoherent, Trumpaesque coverage of the subject. This,, in the nutshell, sums up American's disinterested engagement with Europe. 

Enjoy. Grexit is back for a new season to the screens near you. And so is Greesis - that unique blend of fire and ice that has occupied our newsflows for 6 years now with high drama and some comedy.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

21/4/16: Taking Sugar From the Kids Pantry: Tech Sector Valuations

In a recent post I covered some data showing the trend toward more sceptical funding environment for the U.S. (and European) tech start ups:

Recently, Quartz added some interesting figures to the topic:

Things are not quite getting back to fundamentals, yet... but when they do, tech sector hype will blow up like a soap bubble in a tub. When the entire sector is valued on the basis of some nefarious stats instead of hard corporate finance parameters, you are into a game that is what Russian Roulette is to a Poker table.

21/4/16: Economic Outlook: Advanced Economies

My article on economic outlook forward for the Advanced Economies is now out at the Manning Financial quarterly: