Friday, January 22, 2010

My Neighbors’ Mortgage

My neighbors are gone. They left several months ago. I didn’t realize exactly when, since I didn’t know them that well and frankly I don’t pay attention to those things.

There is a sticker on the front door, placed there by the homeowners association stating that “We have determined that this residence is abandoned and have contacted your mortgage lender”.

My curiosity was piqued. “What happened to these people?” A lost job, perhaps, or some other misfortune. Is the property for sale? Can I buy it dirt cheap? and so on.
I remembered that the property was up for sale for a short while, but then taken off the market again.

Well, the interweb is a wonderful and scary place and the answer was there. I looked up the county records and voilá:

I believe the table explains itself quite clearly, but in any case: they bought the property in 2002, with 20% down financing $205k for 30 years. Three years later, they refinanced for $342,400, probably at a better rate and pulled about $140k out. And then, only one year later, refinanced again with a $414,000 first mortgage and an $86,000 second mortgage tied to a revolving credit line (which I can only assume they used) and got themselves another cash-out for about $160k.

So basically, my neighbors bought their house with about $50k down, and pulled roughly $300k out of it in four years. We all know what happened to the real estate market and now the house is listed at with a value of approximately $340,000, but no way it goes for anything like that in an auction.

I guess my neighbors just “walked away”. Can’t say I blame them. Sure their “credit score” will be shot, but that’s just “joining the club”. There are millions of Americans in the same boat. And it’s perfectly legal.

They will be liable for some taxes once the bank forecloses on the property and sells it (owner is liable for the difference between the loan value and the sales prices), But who knows when that will be. I went to the bank to find out about the house. I figured it would a nice way to add an extra bathroom (or two or three) or have a place to put my mother-in-law when she comes for a long visit (totally worth it) or simply make a deal.

From what I could gather, though, the bank has no idea the house is probably theirs, and very little interest in getting rid of it. They have not listed it in among their properties and I guess its not going to be on the market for a while.

So it sits there, deteriorating. The homeowners association mows the grass and cleans up the garden. The paper is still delivered and usually winds up on my driveway. The crack dealers are moving in (just kidding!).

One can only wonder how many more neighbors’ houses are still out there. Abandoned, but not foreclosed, sitting in residential real estate purgatory.

Time to sell my Bank of America shares.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It Ain't Me, Babe.

Sorry to interrupt this blog, but I've been getting inquiries about the Venepirámides blog, which I have linked under "Blogs I read". It's not my blog. I don't write it or know the person who does. I read it, find it interesting and whoever runs it was kind enough to link this blog also and send some traffic my way.

When I was writing about Stanford, Venepirámides translated some of my posts into Spanish and published them there, for which I was and am grateful. I've also commented some of the posts there (using my name).

Recently, Venepirámides has been blogging about the Venezuelan financial system, which I lost track of like half a decade ago, and that has a number of bankers either nervous or upset or simply wondering about their classification in the rankings.
And they're calling and emailing me.

So to all the bankers, their friends and associates who are wondering...let me paraphrase Dylan.

But it ain't me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain't me, babe,
It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.

I'm kind of partial to the Turtles' version (check out the go-go girls!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not a Prophet in Venezuela

Analyzing Venezuelan bonds as an investment is a very sticky topic. On one hand, it’s very hard to be dispassionate about the issue, given the fact that I spent so many years in the country. On the other, there’s potentially good money in it, so one has to be practical and try to leave one’s emotions aside.

I will start with some advice: if you live in Venezuela or conduct a good amount of business there, you should probably NOT invest in Venezuelan bonds. Doing so would violate Dalmady’s first law of portfolio diversification: “Never put you nest eggs in the same basket as your cojones”. While this law may be a slight contradiction to Lynch’s axiom: “Invest in what you know”, ask any Enron ex-employee, who found himself simultaneously jobless and penniless (their 401ks invested in Enron stock), which precept is the more important one.

This is not to say one shouldn’t participate in the opportunities for participating in new offerings and quickly flipping these bonds for a profit, many of which have been good trades in the past few years. Those are arbitrages though, not really “investments”.

As for the rest of you (or us…but mainly you), here’s my take. Veni bonds have been on a tear lately, as you can see in the graph below of the benchmark Ven 27 bond (click on it to get a larger picture). In the last 30 days, that bond is up from 67% to around 83%.

There are a few explanations for this. First of all, Venezuelan debt was lagging in the credit market rally that began in late 2008. And it was lagging so badly that it was surpassed by the likes of Argentina and other lesser credits (not mention countries like Georgia, El Salvador, etc…which enjoy still much much better credit terms).

That fact wasn’t lost on the analyst community, which picked up on what they believed to be a bargain. Deutsche bank issued a note with a buy recommendation on PDVSA bonds several weeks ago and other analysts also gave their nod to Veni bonds. An analyst I spoke to at Credit Suisse was also very bullish on the bonds (while I shook my head in wonder). Analysts cite indicators, such as a relatively low Debt to GDP, Export Volumes, Substantial FX reserves, etc…which all seem to point out that Ven debt wasn’t as bad as its market price was indicating.

After Friday’s devaluation, even S&P got in the act, revising Venezuela’s credit outlook to “stable” from “negative”. JP Morgan upgraded the bonds yesterday also. So there is a lot of momentum riding on this trade and it could tick up even higher from here. If you’re riding this wave, congratulations, if you’re looking for some action there may still be some here. Double-digit yields are becoming an endangered species in the credit world and Venezuelan bonds still offer those.

Longer term, however, caution is the word. Although it’s hard, if not impossible to be a hometown prophet, I must point out the danger, Will Robinson. Buying Venezuelan debt is like lending money to a wealthy, eccentric and partly insane uncle. You kind of figure he’s good for it, but there’s a good chance he’ll blow his fortune buying real estate on the moon or something and leave you hanging out to dry.

That is the kind of uncertainty you must deal with if investing in Venezuela. Chavez regime’s economic policies are entirely idiot-logical (i.e. only make sense to an idiot). Electric shortages are fixed by shutting down shopping malls, agricultural policy proposals include “vertical chicken coops” on rooftops in poor barrios and consumption of scarce products and services is dissuaded by keeping their prices low. If money is tight, just take some dollars from the reserves at the Central Bank and/or devalue. What’s more, when devaluing the currency, book an exchange gain and spend that, too. What? still not enough? Nationalize a bank or two or ten. Ponzi banks? Bail them out and take them over. Need more money? That’s why we have the “Casa de la Moneda” (currency printing plant).

Corruption, deliberate misinformation and ineptness merge together to form an incomprehensible mess. There isn’t an official figure that can be trusted without an independent third-party verification. Inflation, unemployment, sure every country plays with those numbers…but also more basic, fundamental numbers are suspect in Venezuela. The “embellishment” of oil production figures has been well documented. But it could go deeper still. For example, the Central Bank puts FX reserves at $35 billion. Really? I’d need to see every single greenback to be convinced that that is the case. (Who audits the BCV? Think about that.)

I know what some of you may be thinking: “Dalmady’s just another Chavez-hater who wants the Venezuelan economy to fail and Chavez to fall with it”. Nah. I’m afraid Chavez is a given, he’s not going away anytime soon, so I’d much rather the country did well than not. Less than a decade ago, Brazil was considered a greater credit risk than Venezuela. Now it’s “investment grade”. Venezuela, on the other hand, competes with the worst of the worst. It’s disappointing, sad and no “trend change” is in sight.

It’s not like analysts aren’t used to uncertainty and contradiction, especially when dealing with government policy. Sure, measuring risk vs. expected return is how we handicap the game. In the case of Venezuela, IMO, there are just too many unknown variables and possibly disruptive scenarios to make an educated estimate. Expect the unexpected would have to be my best assumption. How do you put odds on that?

So, invest and play the game of chicken with fate, hoping to be able to bail out before the inevitable collision (Oh, yes…it WILL happen) or sit on the sidelines just for the satisfaction of watching the accident and saying “I told you so”. You could be waiting a long time for your shot at schadenfreude.

It’s a lose-lose proposition. I prefer to play some other game.