Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Jefferies we Trust.

With the Euro crisis as a backdrop, as opposed to the housing/mortgage crisis of 2008, this year's Lehman Brothers has been MF Global, a medium sized commodities broker-dealer, spun off from Man Group a few years ago and which had actually purchased the business from REFCO back in 2005.
REFCO, as many may remember was the subject of a famous meltdown of its own. 

MF Global's demise came reportedly due to large leveraged bets on European sovereign debt which didn't pan out.  That's tough for MF's stockholders and bondholders, who are probably looking at steep losses.
Here's the graph for MF's 6.25% 2016 bond, issued in August 2011, which basically fell off a cliff in two months.

Like Lehman, MF Global's debt was "investment grade" (Fitch, S&P and Moody's), right up until the nasty stuff hit the fan in late October. Of course, MF was just a triple B, as opposed to a Lehman's AA at the time of its collapse, so I guess we're getting better in the ratings biz. Off topic, this is why I really don't invest a whole lot in debt of financial companies. Very difficult to analyze and foresee these meltdowns. 

Still, if it were just the stock and bondholders losing, no biggie. The problem is that the issue is affecting customers also. When brokers go down, customers don't normally lose their money or securities, because these assets are (or should be) segregated and separated from the broker's own. It can be a hassle to get everything set up again at new broker/dealer, but competing firms are normally more than happy to bring those customers on board. Sure beats wining and dining them.

The problem with MF is that apparently those customer funds were not well segregated. There is a reported $600 million "missing" from customer accounts. Big problem. 
First off, this isn't supposed to happen. You'd figure that this was a lesson learned from the Madoff scandal (BLMIS was first and foremost, a broker-dealer). Second, this didn't happen with Lehman, where customers were taken over by Barclays and their assets were there. It didn't even happen with Stanford Financial's brokerage arm (other stuff happened there).
So, big black eye for regulators once again. Hopefully the money shows up, but this is kind of like with missing persons. After three weeks, the chances aren't good.

This leads us up to the old crisis equals opportunity adage and the title of this post: Jefferies (JEF). Jefferies is a mid-sized broker-dealer. Not a household name, but well known and regarded in the industry. While checking the company's Sec filings, an analyst at Egan-Jones noticed that the company was long European sovereign debt in an amount equal to close to 80% of JEF's equity and proceeded to downgrade. 
The company said "Whoa, wait a minute. We make markets in those bonds and we're short (as in we have to deliver to clients) pretty much the same amount." (they didn't actually say THAT, but that was the message). JEF even went as far detailing positions and showing how they could change their inventory levels if the wish too. In short, JEF pretty much did everything right to control the damage. (Frankly, if  you used this same yardstick, where does that leave every European bank?)

However, stock and bond traders have not been understanding and much less forgiving lately and JEF's securities have sold off sharply, opening up what appears to be an opportunity. On the very short end,
JEF's 7.75% 2012 bonds (due March 1) are trading below par, for what would look to be nice pickup for less than four months. On the other end, some of the longer dated maturities are yielding at or close to double digits. JEF is still "investment grade" (FWIW, I know).

While the selling could still get worse, I like the odds on this one and am willing (and have) put down some coins on JEF bonds. Drawing on the 2008 parallels, buying Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs bonds while Lehman went down in flames, proved to be an excellent investment. We'll see how this one goes. With 2012s, we'll know soon enough. For the long run, the broker-dealer business model is obviously "under review". Bear, Merrill, Lehman and now MF can't all be aberrations. For now, however, "In Jefferies we Trust".