Sahil Alvi

Tag: Commodities

Alpha Trade: Winner take all…

by sahilalvi on Jul.18, 2012, under Media

I had an idea about a capital markets game the other day. It is discussed below.

Context:

The oldest, the most universal, and perhaps, the greatest game in the history of human kind is: Trading.

It is hard-wired in our DNA to engage, to deal, to play, to out-wit, to conform, to rebel…to trade.

We like to play games.

We like to flirt…with risk.

The thrill of a “killer” deal satisfies our reptilian mind.

Trading harnesses our intellectual, emotional, and physical energies.

It is, therefore, a powerful visceral experience.

To paraphrase Prof. Robert Schiller, it connects us with our “animal spirits.”

Also, lest we forget, from the bazaars of ancient India to the souks of medieval Silk Route to the high streets of Victorian England to the dark pools of global finance, trading has always been (and always will be) as much a “social” experience as it is a “transactional” one.

In essence, trading is the widest (if not the lowest) common denominator of social interaction for human kind.

Elevator Pitch:

It is in this context, Alpha Trade is proposed as a global, multi-platform, real-time game where ‘Alpha Traders’ compete in a “winner take all,” real money contest for generating the ‘Alpha Trade.’

Game Description / Rules of Engagement:

  • Alpha Traders pay a “commission” of $9.99 per trade of ‘real’ US dollars to put on a trade worth $100,000 of ‘Alpha Dollars’ per trade in a single security or asset.
  • Notably, Alpha Traders can put on as many trades as they like so long as they pay $9.99 per trade.
  • The Alpha Trader chooses the entry and exit prices for his/her trade at the time of putting on the trade.
  • At the end of each trading session, the trade that generates the highest absolute return earns real money in US$ worth the entire sum of “commissions” placed by all the “Alpha Traders” for that specific trading session. The ‘Alpha Champion’ takes it all.
  • Larger the number of trades, bigger the ‘Alpha Pool’ of commissions, and greater the size of the prize.

Relevance:

Alpha Trade sits at the intersection of three powerful and sustainable global forces where: Behavioral Finance meets Social Networking meets Online Gaming.

The game is laced with skill, thrill, intuition, risk, luck, timing, emotion, intelligence, knowledge and much more.

Why the game will have legs is because it is also a pure, unvarnished meritocracy.

Rules are plain and simple.

Winning is clear and absolute.

Hence, the Alpha Trade is also, at once, incredibly timely and utterly timeless.

After all, in a world where the “other 99%” feel the game is increasingly rigged, Alpha Trade is a “fair” trade; a “just” game.

You pick the right stock, you will win. You don’t, you won’t.

You eat what you kill.

And yet, it also has elements of an “asymmetric trade” as a $9.99 gets you ticket to the dance where you can:

“Win it all!”

Target Market:

The target demographics are: 15 to 65 year old expert, intermediate and beginner traders. The game has incredibly wide and global appeal due to the reasons stated in the context discussion above.

Revenue Model / Streams:

The Alpha Company will be the developer, marketer and distributor of the Alpha Trade game.

The company’s revenues would come from the following sources:

  1. Advertising;
  2. Transaction Fees ($1 per trade);
  3. Sponsorships;

The advertisers (and sponsors) could be institutions who are looking for new brokerage clients, or money/asset management clients, or high quality trading talent, or simply, for support within the buy-side community to meet their commercial and marketing objectives. The advertisers could be:

  • Retail Brokerages
  • Mutual Funds
  • Investment Banks
  • Universal & Retail Banks
  • Money Management Firms
  • Hedge Funds
  • Financial Media (Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, CNBC, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.).

In due time, additional revenues could be generated through:

  1. Licensing (for TV and Movie deals);
  2. Merchandising.

Marketing:

In order to initially generate “buzz” and comfort, a “floor” will have to be set for the minimum daily cash prize for the “Alpha Trade of the Day” prize. For example, a minimum of: $1000.

This $1000 cash prize will be one of the best marketing expenses in the initial phase of the Alpha Game’s launch.

In a steady state, this prize floor can be achieved by approximately 100 trades made by Alpha Traders in any trading session. Let us remember, each Alpha Trader is allowed to make unlimited number of trades in any given trading session.

Access & Distribution:

‘Alpha Trade’ will be available to anyone, anytime, anywhere through almost any device.

The game will be launched for the web interface and for Apple, Google-Android, and potentially, the Microsoft tablet/smart phone ecosystems.

Coverage & Ubiquity:

There are three major trading sessions each day around the world:

  1. Asia-Pacific;
  2. Europe;
  3. Americas.

Following are the asset classes that Alpha Traders could trade:

  1. Stocks;
  2. Commodity Futures;
  3. Currencies.

So, in effect, Alpha Traders could trade almost any time in these major liquid asset classes around the globe within any given 24-hour trading cycle.

Critical Success Factor(s):

  • Alpha Traders to put on trades on a regular basis;
  • The group of Alpha Traders to grow at a healthy pace.

Competition:

Stock Wars is, perhaps, the only other tangentially similar competitor with a weak following where users are asked to develop portfolios not pick specific trades. Tradefields is another, even weaker competitor.

Product Extension / Scalability:

Phase 1:

In Phase 1 of the game’s launch, there would be one “Alpha Trade of the Day” winner across the three different trading sessions (Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Americas) in a 24-hour cycle in one asset class: Stocks.

Phase 2:

In Phase 2, there would be “Alpha Champions of the Day” winners across four different asset classes (Stocks, Commodity Futures and Currencies).

Phase 3:

Eventually, Alpha Traders could choose to place trades for any of the following trading periods depending on their preferred time horizons across the four asset classes:

  1. Day Trading Period
  2. Weekly Trading Period
  3. Monthly Trading Period
  4. Quarterly Trading Period
  5. Annual Trading Period.

Key Uses of Funds:

  • Product Development
  • Advertising & Marketing
  • Recruitment
  • Business Development & Strategic Alliances

Amount of Financing Required:

TBD.

Cost Breakdown:

TBD.

Burn Rate:

TBD.

Gross Margins / Bottom line:

TBD

Financing Sources:

  • Seed Round: TBD – better done in-house within Kapitall
  • Series A, B, C, etc. Rounds: VC’s and Strategic Investors.

Potential Strategic Partners / Investors:

  • Financial Information Providers: Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, CNBC, Marketwatch, Google Finance, Yahoo! Finance, etc.
  • Retail Brokerages: Interactive Brokers, Schwab, Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, ETrade, etc.
  • Gaming Companies: Zynga, Sony, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, etc.

Exit Strategy:

  • Acquisition or IPO within a 3-year window.

Conclusion:

Alpha Trade has the speculative immediacy of a daily opportunity “to win” and “to win big.”

There is a sense of tension, timing and momentum investing on the day trading contests.

There is a greater sense of skill, independent thinking, and value investing baked into the quarterly and yearly trading contests.

There is a bit of both on the weekly and monthly trading contests.

There is something for all stripes of investors.

As the winning amount of cold, hard cash is unknown on any given trading session, there is a sense of mystery, adventure and attraction for Alpha Traders to keep coming back to the game.

On the other hand, there is a minimum “floor” for the cash prize.

Notably, most games in the online world take people’s real money for them to buy virtual goods, and it ends there.

In the Alpha Game, you stand to get more – much more – back in real money.

So, the Alpha Game will be unique, trend-setting, game-changing (pun intended), and to use a 90’s dot com word, a “sticky” one.

Day in and day out…around the world…over the years.

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Vale: The performance and promise of Brazil and Basic Materials packed into one

by sahilalvi on Dec.04, 2010, under Economics, Finance

Vale

According to the company itself: “Vale is the world leader in iron ore and pellet production and the second biggest nickel producer.”

Coming out of The Great Recession, Vale (NYSE: VALE) is poised to gain from expansion of the manufacturing base — particularly in markets like China, India, Asia-Pacific, Middle East, and Latin America. The second-biggest miner in the world already, Vale has a growing global footprint of 38 countries with an exposure to most of the world’s high growth markets — not in the least its home country of Brazil.

Furthermore, there are very real geological and geo-political constraints on the supply of minerals Vale (or any of its competitors) can extract, process and sell on the world markets. This demand-supply dynamic has both secular as well as a cyclical themes interwoven. Hence, the global demand-supply dynamic for Vale’s products bodes well for the company’s growth prospects and profit margins for a long-time to come.

Vale is also showing an enormous appetite for bottom-line results with Net Profit Margin almost doubling from a 2009 margin of 21.6% to the Q3, 2010 figure of 40.9% . Even as of 2009, the company was only 310 basis points (in net profit margins) behind the industry’s most profitable of the large mining and metals companies: BHP Billiton.

Vale’s Net Profits are just as noteworthy because the Brazilian company generates revenues that are approximately half compared with another industry leader Rio Tinto — whose top-line figure for 2009 was US$ 41.8 billion compared to Vale’s US$ 23.3 billion. Yet, Vale’s 2009 Net Profits were US$ 5 billion compared with Rio Tinto’s US$ 5.8 billion — which makes Vale’s profits merely 15%  less that that of Rio Tinto’s.

In light of the positive fundamentals, the company is on massive expansion drive with a planned capital outlay of US$ 24 in 2011 alone. To contextualize Vale’s ambitious growth plans, Xtrata — the Anglo-Swiss rival has planned capital outlays of US$ 23 billion over 6 years from 2011 through 2016.

In
2009, Chinese demand represented 68% of global demand for seaborne iron ore, 44% of global demand for
nickel, 39% of global demand for aluminum and 40% of global demand for copper. The percentage of our
operating revenues attributable to sales to consumers in China was 38% in 2009.

There are — however — large, concentrated, inter-connected and material risks to Vale’s growth story. Two that are particularly noteworthy:

1. China, and

2. Steel.

According to Vale’s 2009 annual report:

“In 2009, Chinese demand represented 68% of global demand for seaborne iron ore, 44% of global demand for nickel, 39% of global demand for aluminum and 40% of global demand for copper. The percentage of our operating revenues attributable to sales to consumers in China was 38% in 2009.”

If China slows down, Vale’s (and most metals and mining companies’) revenues and profits decline. Furthermore, the company’s heavy exposure to the global steel market makes it vulnerable to fluctuations in the fortunes of this industry — particularly from a downstream steel consumption perspective in industries like infrastructure, transportation, construction and real estate.

The annual report goes on to say:

“Iron ore and iron ore pellets, which together accounted for 59% of our 2009 operating revenues, are used to produce carbon steel. Nickel, which accounted for 14% of our 2009 operating revenues, is used mainly to produce stainless and alloy steels…The prices of different steels and the performance of the global steel industry are highly cyclical and volatile, and these business cycles in the steel industry affect demand and prices for our products.”

There are other lesser risks such as:

  • Price volatility of nickel, copper and aluminum that are actively traded on global commodity markets;
  • Capacity expansion gestation periods and consequent constraints to meet demand in the short-to-medium term;
  • Geo-political considerations given that many of the mineral-rich countries have unstable political and regulatory regimes.

All that said, the company has a growing and diversified geographic market with 50% of its sales coming from the growing continent of Asia. Vale also has a swath of valuable mines being developed in resource-rich Latin America, Africa and Central Asia, among other mineral-rich locations around the world. Over several decades, the company has developed an extensive, defensible, and hard-to-replicate production and distribution capability — again with a global span. With the insatiable demand for basic materials in developing and frontier markets, Vale is a growth story based on strong fundamentals.

Not to mention, given the company’s healthy cash flow generation capability, Vale can be expected to pay out steady dividends in the forthcoming years.

As of December 3, 2010, Vale’s ADR (NYSE: VALE) traded at approximately 14.2 times earnings compared with its other global metals and mining peers’ ADRs:

  • Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO): 14.9
  • BHP Billiton plc (NYSE:BBL): 16.8
  • BHP Billiton Ltd (NYSE:BHP): 19.5
  • Xstrata (LON:XTA): 29.1
  • Anglo American plc (PINK:AAUKY): 40.2

Since I added Vale’s ADR to my simulation portfolio on Sept 17, 2010, the position has gone up by 23% in merely two and half months (as of Dec 3, 2010).

Moreover, it is a highly liquid ADR — consistently ranking as one of the highest traded ADR’s on NYSE.

The target P/E one could set for the ADR is a value of 20 times its earnings per share compared with its current P/E of 14.2. Even at a P/E of 20, it is worth “taking stock” (no pun intended) rather than sell-off the entire position.

Given Vale’s exposure to the twin forces of Brazil’s breathtaking economic expansion coupled with the insatiable global demand for minerals and metals that Vale produces, the company’s stock and ADR are poised for a significant upside.

In essence, Vale is really a “buy and hold” play over the medium-to-long run.

Disclosure: The author owns no stock of Vale and has written this research note purely based on publicly available information.

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This MINUTE could last you a lifetime: An investment thesis for a period of secular economic instability

by sahilalvi on Sep.25, 2010, under Economics, Finance, Management, Philosophy

We are living in times where a confluence of several secular and cyclical factors are resulting in a profitable rise of capital requirements for, and allocation in, the Materials, Industrials, Non-cyclicals, Utilities, Technology, and Energy (MINUTE) sectors.

“Well we know where we’re goin’ but we don’t know where we’ve been.

And we know what we’re knowing’ but we can’t say what we’ve seen.

And we’re not little children and we know what we want.

And the future is certain give us time to work it out.

We’re on a road to nowhere come on inside.

Takin’ that ride to nowhere we’ll take that ride…”

- Road to Nowhere by Talking Heads

The inexorable quest for “more”…of everything:

It is safe to assume, everyday, almost all of approximately 6.9 billion people wake up wanting more than they already have. Some aspire for more luxuries; others seek more necessities; a vast under-class, just struggles for more dignities.

Global commerce is an agile, pragmatic force transforming more and more lives than ever before. Thanks to the forces of globalization, we are witnessing a free-er flow of goods, services, capital, and people around the world. Also, largely thanks to globalization, every year tens of millions of people from a wide variety of emerging and frontier markets are joining the growing global mainstream of what broadly constitutes as “middle-class consumers.” This somewhat loose grouping of “middle income” consumers already constitutes roughly half of the world’s population.

More food is needed, produced and eaten. More clothes are bought, sold and worn. More property is being built and inhabited. More cars and trucks are being manufactured and driven. More oil, gas, coal and other conventional energy sources are being harnessed, distributed and consumed. More alternative energy sources are being discovered, produced and commercialized. Trillions of dollars of roads, railways, power plants, transmission networks, dams and bridges are being built and utilized. More paper is being used…and forests felled. More minerals are being mined, processed and used in a wider variety of industrial and consumer applications. More manufacturing is being done and absorbed – on a net global production basis.

It is an insatiable, inexorable quest for more…and more…and more from a planet that has its very real physical limits.

Resources are limited.

Demand is rising. Supply is not. In fact, supply is diminishing for a wide variety of natural resources.

It is that simple.

The real, the tangible, the substantial: The World is Pyramidal

Imagine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs represented in a world that isn’t round, ovular, or even flat.

The world is a four-dimensional pyramid of time, population, demand, and supply.

Due to the enormous pressure on resources owing to a rising global population and various other sub-plots, our times are characterized by exceptional change or instability underpinned by the triumvirate of: uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity.

What is also undeniable is: because of – or in spite of – globalization, the individual or family is much more disconnected from a social support structure. During earlier times in more settled communities, this support structure was taken for granted. With professional certitude and financial stability petering out, the individual or family is much more vulnerable to the financial consequences of the high-velocity change we experience today and can anticipate to experience for the foreseeable future.

By mixing in the notion of rising demand and declining supply of natural resources, the concoction we have is a period that harkens back to our pre-historic ancestors’ times of operating in a hostile, uncertain, ambiguous, high-risk, constantly-evolving environment.

It is only natural that a Darwinian “survivalist” instinct kicks in among us to seek safe havens.

Investors are us: You and I.

Quite obviously, our investment decisions are not disconnected from the complex interaction of our personal, social, economic, and financial imperatives and choices.

Therefore, what we find is a seamless connective tissue between our psychological makeup which may be in “survivalist” mode and our investment bias to seek a real, tangible protection from the real, intangible economic storm. It is this quest for the real, the substantial that has Gold breaching record highs on a regular basis. Silver is at a 30-year high precisely for the same reason. In a period of secular uncertainty and instability, Gold can be expected to continue to hold its status as the ultimate haven of safety and trust. A haven that has stood the test of time for its ability to act as a reliable medium of exchange and as a store of value (or wealth).  Gold has also, unsurprisingly, held its purchasing power over several thousand years of human commercial history. It has, and continues to be: rare, valuable, and tangible.

Due to demand-supply constraints, prices for most commodities are on a secular upwards trajectory anyway. What, however, we are witnessing is something much deeper and more primordial. We have begun to witness a global, long-term, broad, social, “survivalist” quest (beyond just the investment world) for the physical security of the real, the tangible and the substantial.

This survivalist quest is a pragmatic quest.

Manifestation of individual and societal “tail” risks; particularly of the “fat” variety:

The quest for financial security and a steady income at the expense of higher-risk, dividend income (or capital appreciation) is the underlying driver for fixed income security markets booming in most parts of the world.

Baby-boomers in many ageing, developed economies of the West have had multiple setbacks in regards to their retirement savings and entitlements over the last decade. At the start of the millennium came the dot-com bust, shortly followed by the 9/11 attacks and the collapse of financial markets with a deep, ensuing recession. Barely recovering from that shock, the Credit Crisis came bringing along with it the worst recession since the Great Depression.

As a result, a significant number of boomers have seen their nest eggs shrink just at the time when they have been made redundant or have had to accept lower paying positions with fewer benefits.

Hence, the need of (and pursuit for) income security, reliability, and predictability is only going to strengthen in the coming years.

Leading up to the Global Financial Crisis, trillions of dollars worth of “intangible” securities had disastrously evaporated into thin air. During the ensuing global “Credit Crunch,” we were all rudely awakened to the notion of “tail risks,” i.e. Risks that lie outside the confidence interval of the expected range of outcomes on a normal distribution curve. Nicholas Taleb’s “black swans” do exist. In its aftermath, The Great Recession has also illustrated how our inappropriate or inadequate intervention (e.g. not intervening to save Lehman) of regular tail risks can allow them to morph into “fat tail” risks – unleashing a set of devastating, systemic, and inter-connected outcomes in what has come to be called The Great Recession.

Even if “fat tail” risks do not actualize (or not as severely or frequently as in the recent past), our time is still to be characterized by an acute awareness of the possibility of tail risks in general, and “fat tail” risks in particular. Whether at the micro-economic (individual and family) level or at the macro-economic level, the notion of tail risks can be expected to play a significant role in the economic lives of nations, going forward.

A future flush with capital: Sovereign Indebtedness & Fiat Currency Debasement

Post-Global Financial Crisis, whether due to genuine commitment towards the welfare of their constituents or due to political expediency or some combination thereof, governments (particularly developed economies) have demonstrated a renewed sense of purpose to generate employment by investing in “energy security” and “infrastructure upgrade” projects for their respective economies. These investments are expected to be made through various fiscal measures such as:

a)     shifting budgetary priorities away from defense, space and entitlements to sectors like energy and infrastructure projects,

b)    launching deficit spending measures to invest in new infrastructure projects, and

c)     raising taxes as well as growing the tax base, among other measures.

The ironic upshot of the Global Financial Crisis is to add more fuel to the fire that created all the havoc and instability in the first place. Further loosening of monetary policy and expansion of sovereign credit have been used as levers to stimulate economies out of the “credit crunch” that resulted from a crisis of confidence in the financial markets — which to begin with — was induced due to lax and expansionary monetary conditions sustained over an extended period of time. Since the Great Recession began, central banks across most of the developed, and several of the consequential emerging markets, have progressively eased interest rates to near zero. In fact, the prospect (and reality) of additional rounds of quantitative easing by central banks has been another favored recipe to further increase money supply in the global financial system.

Quantitative easing (or sovereign debt and other fixed income asset purchases by central banks through new fiat currency issuance) can continue for some time before inflationary pressures start to seep in to the real economy. As these sovereign credit purchases by central banks expands their balance sheets, ever larger proportions of their respective treasuries’ revenues have to go towards servicing this debt. As the costs of servicing this debt grows, the central bank has to print more money. It becomes a vicious circle.

In essence, all that such quantitative easing measures are doing is to leave sovereign treasuries more indebted, fiat currencies more debased, and asset prices inflated (primarily in nominal terms).

Asset price inflation is, however, very real for the ordinary citizen on Main Street. The component of asset price inflation that is over and above nominal levels owes its increases to rising demand for these assets by a growing number of consumers around the world. Further, one can argue that the “real rate” of inflation, based on fundamental demand-supply dynamics, is also magnified by market speculators betting on directional moves on asset prices thanks to the cheap money available within the financial system. As cheap money floods in from the financial economy to the real economy, the increasingly “financialized” world has begun to show ominous signs of expansive, unintended consequences being unleashed upon the broader society. The Global Financial Crisis, that began to show its first material consequences on the world economy in 2007 (and most will argue is still underway), can be expected to be only the first of many global “events” that will send shock-waves across the global economy for years to come before some sort of global “reset” will have to occur when the collective pain of the debtor nations and corporations gets too unbearable to prolong any further.

Private sector credit creation: A growth imperative for banks in a de-leveraging environment

Meanwhile, proprietary trading is on the way out for the money center banks and investment banks. Therefore, fee-based investment and corporate banking will become ever more consequential for generating profits for these institutions. This reduction and eventual evaporation of trading revenues will entail an aggressive pursuit for increasing lending and underwriting activities among the banks. We are entering a period where, on the one hand, there is a concentration of capital in the financial economy among the hands of relatively few banks. On the other hand, there is diffusion in the real economy where innovation happens and jobs are created. Hence, despite the enormous monetary stimulus programs rolled out by governments, bank lending has tended to remain tight and expensive to a majority of businesses. At some point in the imminent future, however, all the build-up of excess liquidity on bank balance sheets will have to be put to work in the real economy. At that point, despite Basel III compliance obligations, there is a likelihood of banks and other lending institutions expanding their loan books and loosening their lending requirements to win business.

In addition, non-bank, private sector players such as private equity firms, asset management firms and hedge funds are also expected to pursue their profit motive in this new phase of monetary expansion.

Inorganically created trillions of dollars of capital (fiat currency) is about to chase limited real resources and organically growing investment opportunities. The result: value of “hard stuff,” i.e. real, tangible assets (metals, commodities, natural resources, plants and machinery, infrastructure and real estate) is to grow over a secular trend line for the foreseeable future – albeit with a higher degree of volatility. The “hard stuff” also can be expected to out-perform the “soft stuff” (Software & Technology, Media, Entertainment, many parts of Financial Services, Hospitality, and other Services sectors, among others).

Hence, most of the world’s reserve currencies (US Dollar, Euro, UK Pound Sterling) are to come under pressure in this monetary expansionary environment.

Most currencies, in this period, can be expected to  face a downward pressure but a few are also likely to stay resilient or appreciate due to the “flight to safety” phenomenon or because they belong to countries that are net exporters of raw or finished goods and services. Currencies that can be expected to strengthen are:

  • currencies that have sound macro-economic fundamentals and fewer, more insulated fiscal and monetary variables to contend with (Swiss Franc, Swedish Krona); or
  • currencies that are issued by large net exporters of natural resources or finished goods (Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar, Brazil Real, Russian Ruble, Norwegian Krone, Chinese Renmimbi, Korean Won).

Pursuit of yield and the resulting fixed income bubble:

It may not seem like there is a profusion of liquidity in the general economy, yet the waves of capital are building up around the world and liquidity has already begun to creep into certain parts of the global economy such as a wide array of fixed income securities and emerging markets equities.

There are already signs of a bond bubble building up on the horizon.

Furthermore, central banks around the world are likely to continue to sustain a posture of extremely low interest rates to promote an increase in money supply thereby making a tight lending environment an unattractive proposition for banks and non-banking financial institutions. Government and corporate borrowings, on the other hand, will become ever more attractive to lending institutions’, corporations’ as well as institutional investors’, burgeoning balance sheets. The “promise” of a long-term steady yield would aggressively chase down returns in an otherwise uncertain environment. Therefore, fixed income instruments – whether sovereign debt, municipal bonds, or investment-grade (even high-yield) corporate debt – will increasingly become popular in this environment. Popularity, however, is not going to ensure high returns. Risk of a strengthening investor bias towards bonds is very real. Spreads – between high-grade and the enlarging pool of high-yield (aka junk) bonds – is expected to grow. Spreads – between fiscally austere and responsible governments vis-a-vis spendthrift economies, states and municipalities – is also expected to widen.

In pursuit of yields, investor appetite for high-yield fixed income securities has reached enormous proportions. This ravenous demand for high-risk fixed income securities, so recently after the Great Credit Squeeze, does not seem to abate even when it comes to high-risk sovereign debt such that of countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland or Portugal.

It is for the same reason why even the convertible bonds asset class can be expected to perform better than pure equities across many industries – particularly, the services-oriented industries. It follows that various forms of capital structure arbitrage opportunities are expected to present themselves in abundance during this period of dislocation and change.

It is in this setting that large, old-world behemoth corporations with steady cash flows and dividend payouts are expected to gain investor favor in the equity markets.

It is also noteworthy that, in early autumn of 2010, various Central Banks are still trying to fend off deflationary pressures both in word and in action – across many parts of the developed world.

The Fed, for example, is indeed in a fix. On the one hand, the US economy remains sluggish despite interest rates near record lows inching closer to zero. On the other hand, unemployment rates continue to trend upwards over – what can now be considered – a secular trajectory rather than a cyclical one.

Safety is the theme du jour: Defensible (not necessarily just defensive) industries that get “hands dirty”

So, how can we confidently utilize the above analysis to:

a)     preserve capital;

b)    grow capital.

It is quite straight-forward, really.

One way is to listen to what legendary investor Jim Rogers professes in terms of the merits of investing in “hot commodities.”

What companies would benefit from the “hot commodities” theme?

Metals & Basic Materials Producers:  BHP Biliton (NYSE: BHP), Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO), Vale (NYSE: VALE), Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM), Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX), Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX), Vedanta (LON: VED), Xstrata (LON: XTA), and so forth.

Energy Producers: Chevron (NYSE: CVX), ConocoPhilips (NYSE: COP), Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM), LUKOIL (PINK: LUKOY), Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE: PBR), Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS.A), ENI (NYSE: E), among others.

What is noticeable is that a commodities boom will entail alternating cyclical demand for “risk on” assets such as oil, coal, gas, copper, etc.  on the one hand and for “risk off” assets such as gold on the other. From a secular growth perspective, however, we are already in the midst of a bull run for both “risk on” and “risk off” commodities.

Capital flows, and consequent capital appreciation, can be expected to occur in miners, producers, harvesters, distributors and traders of commodities. We can fully expect for producers and manufacturers of consumer staples (particularly those with a global reach), basic and intermediate materials, and various energy sources — to see a significant increase in capital allocation as well.

In a multi-year period of de-leveraging across some of the highest consumption-driven (developed) markets, consumer staples can be expected to remain one of the few relatively stable sectors of the economy. Within the food and consumer staples space, companies like Kraft (NYSE: KFT), Nestle (VTX: NESN), General Mills (NYSE: GIS), ConAgra (NYSE: CAG), H.J. Heinz (NYSE: HNZ), Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), Monsanto (NYSE: MON), Bunge (NYSE: BG), and Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM) are likely to do well during this period. If agricultural commodities traders such as: Glencore, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfuss go public, they would be an attractive companies in which to buy equity as well. Their debt would also be an attractive way to gain exposure to the “food security” theme. Companies like Proctor & Gamble (NYSE: PG), Unilever (NYSE: UL), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), among others are expected to show resilience in the consumer non-durables space.

Our times, however, are not just characterized by rising values of “hard assets” such as: physical commodities, basic materials, and energy sources. Our times are not just about molecules found in nature. Our times will also re-discover the value of hard-to-replicate, “get your hands dirty,” industries like: infrastructure, industrials, utilities, telecoms, distribution and transportation.

The Industrials (Building Materials Suppliers, Construction and Heavy Equipment Manufacturers, etc.) would be attractive investment destinations. Leaders in this space will continue to demonstrate their dominance: Alcoa (AA), Lafarge (LFRGY), ArcelorMittal (MT), POSCO (PKX) are all positioned well to benefit from global growth in infrastructure and real estate development — particularly within emerging and frontier markets for years to come.

Utilities and Distribution industries would benefit from a “flight-to-safety” phenomenon. They would also be viewed as defensible businesses that are hard-to-replicate overnight. Utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG), E.ON (EONGY), RWE (ETR: RWE), GDF SUEZ (GDFZY), Gas Authority of India (532155) are bound to perform well in an environment of rising energy consumption and high barriers-to-entry for a new energy producer/distributor to replicate the extensive production, distribution and transmission network that these enormous utility companies have laid out over decades.

The Tech (and Telecoms) sector can be expected to retain resilient levels of demand and investment.

In a world of rising telecommunications usage coupled with dramatic adoption rates of first-time users in vast expanses of the developing world, those companies which have a head-start in their respective telecoms (particularly mobile telephony) markets are poised for significant upside. Examples that come to mind: Bharti Airtel (532454), Reliance Communications (532712), Brasil Telecoms Participacoes (BRP), VimpelCom (VIP), Turkcell (TKC), Vodafone (VOD), among others.

In each of the above mentioned sectors, the companies (and their securities) of the following types are expected to do well:

  • clear and diversified market leaders, or
  • the ones which have significant exposure to emerging or frontier markets, or
  • the ones with dominant or monopolistic  rights over raw materials, or
  • those which are well-managed, low-debt, low-cost structures.

Fundamentals of companies in the ‘MINUTE’ space will point toward the best-performing equities and corporate debt — as long as — their securities are not over-priced vis-a-vis classic valuation metrics.

Fundamentals, at the end of the day, will differentiate the winners from losers even in the highest-performing sectors.

It is against this backdrop, that investors can generate superior risk-adjusted returns by investing in industries encapsulated within the ‘MINUTE’ theme.

“Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back
Even while we sleep
We will find you

Acting on your best behavior
Turn your back on Mother Nature
Everybody wants to rule the world

It’s my own design
It’s my own remorse
Help me to decide
Help me make the

Most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world…”

- Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears

Power Shift from West to East: Potential for Trade Disputes, Currency Wars and Protectionism

These are times characterized by structural changes in the global economy as the clichéd economic weight of the world shifts back from the West to the East (for fifteen of the past eighteen centuries, such has been the status quo).

These structural changes have only accelerated since the Global Financial Crisis.

Since the ensuing Great Recession, United States – the wealthiest country in the world – has now approximately one in five of its citizens living in poverty. Unofficially, 16% of the workforce is unemployed or under-employed. United States continues to run enormous trade deficits vis-a-vis China. China is buying American treasuries and United States is buying Chinese consumer products. As of now, it is in both countries’ interests to continue this policy of “mutual engagement.” The situation, however, is untenable.

Hence, the question is: Who will blink first?

Meanwhile, the UK is squeezed from many sides: rising unemployment, surging entitlement requirements, declining tax revenues, increasing need for economic stimulus, falling industrial competitiveness, and a general economic malaise. The country has elected its first right-of-center government (with a leftist coalition partner) in over a decade that is pushing through sweeping austerity measures to curb its out-of-control budget deficit.

Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain are all dealing with enormous fiscal problems threatening the very existence of the European Monetary Union. There is a good possibility that we have not heard the last or the worst of the Greek fiscal woes or the Irish banking crisis. Default from either one of them cannot be ruled out.

Even hitherto fiscally robust economies like Austria and Belgium, are showing signs of economic strain.

The historically liberal, left-leaning post-World War II Western Europe seems to be building up a rising appetite for anti-immigration, right-leaning, populist tendencies. Nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiments are beginning to manifest in electoral politics as well as in government policy across liberal and/or socialist heartlands such as France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and The Netherlands.

All of these are developed economies. All of these are some of the wealthiest societies in the world.

In this environment, overt or covert forms of protectionism are only a matter of time. Such protectionism, however, tends to help those industries more which are resource and labor-intensive — where jobs cannot be exported over a broadband connection. On this go around, however, there are fewer manufacturing jobs to protect in the West. As it is, the global manufacturing supply chain is extraordinarily intertwined where the component suppliers may be head-quartered in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia or India. The final, branded consumer product, however, is – more often than not – designed in the US or Western Europe. Import tariffs, therefore, are not likely to trigger significant changes in global trade flows until and unless, the West brings about structural changes in its economies to support indigenous manufacturing to compete with cheap imports from Asia and elsewhere — particularly, those imports that are more competitive due to lower cost structures as well due to artificial currency depreciation. Any such structural change itself would take at least a generation to show marked effects in global trade flows.

The Eastern governments, for their part, would have to stop (or at least reduce) meddling with their currencies in order keep their exports artificially attractive in global markets.

Meanwhile, the currency row between the US and China is not just indicative of a growing tension between the Western (consumer) economy of the US and the Eastern (producer) economy of China. This currency row is a thinly veiled manifestation of the power struggle and transition we are witnessing from the West to East.

Ultimately, societies that “create” stuff (largely the West) should have more leverage than the societies that “make” stuff (largely the East). Intellectual property rights, however, cannot be as directly and completely measured, enforced and monetized as manufactured value addition. Hence, the West is being viewed as more profligate and less productive than the East and vice versa.

In fact, in very real terms, global trade and savings imbalances are partly due to this very phenomenon where the West is not being compensated in full — for its innovations in hi-technology, bio-therapeutics and conventional medicine, automotive, aviation, distribution and logistics, financial services, media, telecommunications, among other industries.  The West is doing the innovation “heavy-lifting” only to see the East create a cheaper, faster, more mass-market version of the product or service that is sold across the globe without much (if any) financial compensation or intellectual acknowledgement offered to the original Western innovators of that product or service.

Meanwhile, the East is now beginning to move up the innovation value chain where it may, increasingly not only produce the products and services of the future, but may also originate the innovations of tomorrow.

As this shift occurs, power will be transitioned — from the West to the East – much like before in the history of civilizations in spasmodic, discontinuous bursts of instability and discord (if not all out combative military interventions or wars).

Global scarcity of resources, birth of new nations and a period of secular economic instability:

Historically, the world has dealt with scarcity for most of its existence. Make no mistake, despite armed conflicts in the past several decades not being as devastating or multi-lateral as World War II, the quest for resources continues to intensify among nations. In fact, one can argue that beneath all the cultural, religious, and linguistic differences that are offered up as the key bases for the independence struggles of various minorities, the central (although not always overtly stated) raison d’etre for new countries being carved out of existing ones is the notion of safeguarding ancestral, “sovereign” economic interests of a minority residing in a resource-rich territory within an existing nation.

Right from the mid-twentieth century – when former South Asian British colonies became independent as India, Pakistan, East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) – the pursuit of economic self-determination has been as much a factor as the desire for political autonomy or social equity and liberty in all independence struggles. Obviously, such a dynamic is not uniquely pertinent to the British empire either, the French relinquished their control over Indochina to give birth to three new nations for a similar set of reasons – Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Self-determination of political, social – and crucially – economic interests was the common thread across the founding fathers and the indigenous populations that catalyzed the break-down of the Soviet Union. Since the Communist union’s dissolution, a slew of new nations (many of which resource-rich) have come into being: Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

East Timor became independent a few years ago fuelled by its quest for religious, cultural and economic freedom.

As a matter of fact, there have been rumblings for independence in resource-rich Kurdish Autonomous Region of Northern Iraq (popularly known as Kurdistan) for quite some time. Yet another example of economic drivers playing a significant part in seeking autonomy and independence, many in the Flemish region of Belgium want to separate from Wallonia – in large part, due to the economic disparity and dispensation structure of state-provided welfare benefits.

North and South Sudan may go their separate ways as early as January 2011. In addition to all the ethnic violence that has culminated in the proposed referendum for independence, South Sudan sits on over five billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Economics, again, becomes a critical consideration.

If we peel all the layers of the onion, as it were: Through the centuries and across geographies, the ongoing march of societies staking claim to resources they consider are rightfully theirs, has led (and continues to lead) to conflicts.

We are entering an era where, again, the quest for basic resources is expected to form the basis for many a major and minor future conflict — not just among nations but even within them.

As the sense of scarcity rises and the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ widens: anger, resentment and strife can be expected to follow. Recent strikes by workers in Greece and France over raising the retirement age and reducing entitlements, collective unrest in Pakistan and Haiti over the slow and inadequate response by their governments in the wake of natural disasters, as well as food riots in Mozambique are but a few manifestations of public anger boiling over. Despite those episodes not yielding the desired results for the ‘masses,’ we haven’t seen the last of them. Au contraire, if anything, we can expect to see more such collective manifestations of economic tensions brewing at the international, domestic, community, family unit and individual levels.

The writing is on the wall is: We are entering an era of secular economic and geo-political instability.

Hence, these times are about valuing the basics that sit at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Food, clothing, and shelter.

“I close both locks below the window
I close both blinds and turn away
Sometimes solutions aren’t so simple
Sometimes goodbye’s the only way

And the sun will set for you
The sun will set for you
And the shadow of the day
Will embrace the world in grey
And the sun will set for you…”

- Shadow of the Day by Linkin Park

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