Einhorn on the markets

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David Einhorn, highly respected hedge fund manager of Greenlight Capital and author of “Fooling some of the people all of the time” yesterday delivered the keynote address at the Value Investing Congress. His full speech can be accessed here, but Rolfe Winkler of Reuters has very handily published the highlights, as posted below.

On Bernanke and Geithner:
Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly “do whatever it takes” to “solve one problem at a time” and deal with the unintended consequences later. It is too soon for history to evaluate their work, because there hasn’t been time for the unintended consequences of the “do whatever it takes” decision-making to materialize.

On too big to fail and the true lesson of Lehman:
The proper way to deal with too-big-to-fail, or too inter-connected to fail, is to make sure that no institution is too big or inter-connected to fail. The test ought to be that no institution should ever be of individual importance such that if we were faced with its demise the government would be forced to intervene. The real solution is to break up anything that fails that test.

The lesson of Lehman should not be that the government should have prevented its failure. The lesson of Lehman should be that Lehman should not have existed at a scale that allowed it to jeopardize the financial system. And the same logic applies to AIG, Fannie, Freddie, Bear Stearns, Citigroup and a couple dozen others.

The administration talks tough about TBTF, but has made very clear they aren’t willing to make policy choices to do anything to proactively break them up. It was very telling when, in a keynote at the Economist’s Buttonwood Gathering, Larry Summers said too-big-to-fail means too-big-not-to-be-regulated. The correct thing to have said, the correct policy that needs to be worked out so that we avoid a re-run of last year’s crisis is “too big to fail is too big to exist.” But don’t take my word for it, take Alan Greenspan’s.

On CDS:
I think that trying to make safer CDS is like trying to make safer asbestos. How many real businesses have to fail before policy makers decide to simply ban them?

On arguments that the lesson of 1937-8 is not to withdraw stimulus too soon:
An alternative lesson from the double dip the economy took in 1938 is that the GDP created by massive fiscal stimulus is artificial. So whenever it is eventually removed, there will be significant economic fall out. Our choice may be either to maintain large annual deficits until our creditors refuse to finance them or tolerate another leg down in our economy by accepting some measure of fiscal discipline.

Channeling Stephen “There-is-no-exit” Roach:
As we sit here today, the Federal Reserve is propping up the bond market, buying long-dated assets with printed money. It cannot turn around and sell what it has just bought.

There is a basic rule of liquidity. It isn’t the same for everyone. If you own 10,000 shares of Greenlight Re, you have a liquid investment. However, if I own 5 million shares it is not liquid to me, because of both the size of the position and the signal my selling would send to the market. For this reason, the Fed cannot sell its Treasuries or Agencies without destroying the market. This means that it will be challenged to shrink the monetary base if inflation actually turns up….

…. The Fed could reach the point where it perceives doing whatever it takes requires it to become the buyer of Treasuries of first and last resort.

On his gold thesis:
I have seen many people debate whether gold is a bet on inflation or deflation. As I see it, it is neither. Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they appear sensible. Gold did very well during the Great Depression when FDR debased the currency. It did well again in the money printing 1970s, but collapsed in response to Paul Volcker’s austerity. It ultimately made a bottom around 2001 when the excitement about our future budget surpluses peaked….

….When I watch Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Geithner and Mr. Summers on TV, read speeches written by the Fed Governors, observe the “stimulus” black hole, and think about our short-termism and lack of fiscal discipline and political will, my instinct is to want to short the dollar. But then I look at the other major currencies. The Euro, the Yen, and the British Pound might be worse. So, I conclude that picking one these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure. And I decide holding gold is better than holding cash, especially now, where both earn no yield.

He’s also buying long-dated options on interest rates using derivatives:
Along these same lines, we have bought long-dated options on much higher US and Japanese interest rates. The options in Japan are particularly cheap because the historical volatility is so low. I prefer options to simply shorting government bonds, because there remains a possibility of a further government bond rally in response to the economy rolling over again. With options, I can clearly limit how much I am willing to lose, while creating a lot of leverage to a possible rate spiral.

Click here for Einhorn’s full speech.

Source: Rolfe Winkler, Reuters, October 19, 2009.

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