Book Value

Guest Post: Failbook’s Epic Fail: Does Zuckerberg Want Users To Pay?

From the BBC: "Facebook has started testing a system that lets users pay to highlight or promote posts.  Facebook said the goal was to see if users were interested in paying to flag up their information." That’s their plan? That’s Zuckerberg’s big idea? Get users to pay to post premium content!? Did the well-circulated hoax that Facebook planned to get users to pay for use just turn out to be true? If they proceed with this (unlikely) it seems fairly obvious the world would say goodbye Facebook, hello free alternatives. The truth is that Facebook is a toy, a dreamworld, a figment of the imagination. Zuckerberg wanted to make the world a more connected place (and build a huge database of personal preferences), and he succeeded thanks to a huge slathering of venture capital. That’s an accomplishment, but it’s not a business. While the angel investors and college-dorm engineers will feel gratified at paper gains, it is becoming hard to ignore that there is no great profit engine under the venture. In fact, the big money coming into Facebook just seems to be money from new investors — they raised eighteen times as much in their flotation yesterday as they did in a whole year of advertising revenue. For an established company with such huge market penetration, they’re veering dangerously close to Bernie Madoff’s business model.

Berkshire Annual Meeting Highlights

While Charlie Munger has so far to comment on the 24K content of made in the basement tribalware, he and his partner have made quite a few other statements on items ranging far and wide, during the annual Berkshire Omaha convention, which year after year represents the annual pilgrimage for thousands to a crony capitalist Mecca, and which with the passage of time, has become increasingly more irrelevant. Why? Because with a $58 billion bet (on $37.8 billion in cash and equivalents) that asset prices will go higher, it is rather clear on what side of the 'bail out' argument, and its 'all in' fallback: central planning, Warren Buffett sits. 

A House of Cards aka Un Castillo de Naipes

May had arrived in Spain. It was not, however, the May of years’ past but a Spring that was somehow devoid of warmth and of joy. The flowers had begun to blossom but they were gnarled, deformed, as if the land was reflecting the mood of the people. It seemed as if the Devil had arrived in Spain and, having conducted his Inquisition, was loosening various punishments upon the country based upon the confessions that he had witnessed.  The Cathedrals appeared to have been defaced, the bones of the Saints were pocked with mildew and the once dazzling Crosses in the churches were inlaid with some type of worm that had not been seen before. Sadness, like a thick band of fog, had descended upon the coastline and it moved inward untouched by any wind or plea to God for Salvation. The malfeasance of what Spain had brought upon herself was about to be bourne and the hope of any other conclusion was now but a faint prayer remembered in our winter memories. The Piper has arrived from Hamelin; and Spain, like so many before her, will be forced to pay.


It will come as no surprise that the Spanish 'experiment' with the euro is not going well. Spain now relies more heavily on the ECB than at any time and today's bill auction sums up all that is wrong about our financial markets when an event that absolutely should be expected to be a non-event (a sovereign nation selling a small amount of short-dated debt) becomes a catalyst for algorithmic excess. In perhaps the greatest analogy for today's auction, Micheal Cembalest pronounces "throughout my career, central banks having to buy or finance sovereign debt to avoid a debt crisis was like going to the prom with your sister: there’s something very unnerving about it, even though it looks normal from a distance." It did not take long for the honeymoon following LTRO2 to end and despite today's exuberance, Italian and Spanish equity markets (as well as financial credits) have collapsed as Spain's sovereign risk has skyrocketed. While Spanish bank holdings of Spanish govvies, ECB lending to Spanish banks, and Spanish credit risk are surging so is one other much more worrisome fundamental trend - that of corporate non-performing loans. Dismissing the dichotomous relationship between consumer and residential delinquency calmness relative to unemployment's explosion (much as the market has in its pricing of bank stocks), the JPM CIO remains underweight Europe arguing that while contrarian calls are often the most profitable, this time being underweight European equities is the gift that keeps on giving.

Chris Martenson: "Are We Heading For Another 2008?"

We all know that central banks and governments have been actively intervening in markets since the 2007 subprime mortgage meltdown destabilized the leveraged-debt-dependent global economy. We also know that unprecedented intervention is now the de facto institutionalized policy of central banks and governments. In some cases, the financial authorities have explicitly stated their intention to “stabilize markets” (translation: reinflate credit-driven speculative bubbles) by whatever means are necessary, while in others the interventions are performed by proxies so the policy remains implicit.  All through the waning months of 2007 and the first two quarters of 2008, the market gyrated as the Federal Reserve and other central banks issued reassurances that the subprime mortgage meltdown was “contained” and posed no threat to the global economy. The equity market turned to its standard-issue reassurance: “Don’t fight the Fed,” a maxim that elevated the Federal Reserve’s power to goose markets to godlike status. But alas, the global financial meltdown of late 2008 showed that hubris should not be confused with godlike power. Despite the “impossibility” of the market disobeying the Fed’s commands (“Away with thee, oh tides, for we are the Federal Reserve!”) and the “sure-fire” cycle of stocks always rising in an election year, global markets imploded as the usual bag of central bank and Sovereign State tricks failed in spectacular fashion.

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I know many of you are thinking “the ECB or Fed could just print money.” That answer is wrong. If the ECB chooses to do this, Germany will walk. End of story. They’ve already seen how rampant monetization works out (Weimar). And if the Fed chooses to monetize everything to hold things up, then the US Dollar collapses, inflation erupts creating civil unrest, interest rates rise killing the banks, US corporations and the US economy… all during an election year.

As First Greek CDS "Anstalt" Appears, A Question Emerges: Did Banks Not Square Off Margins?

The irony is not lost on us that Bloomberg is reporting that KA Finanz, an Austrian bad-bank supported by the Austrian government, faces as much as a €1 billion need for funding to cover its exposures to Greek CDS (coughcreditanstaltcough). In a statement this morning, which we noted in a tweet, the bank noted "activation of the CDS with an assumed loss ratio of about 80% would mean an additional provisioning charge of EUR 423.6 million". KA Finanz's total amount of Greek CDS exposure is around EUR1bn. What is shocking and should be of great concern is that we have been led to believe that very little net cash will change hands on the basis of the $3.2bn net aggregate market exposure. This was based on the now false premise that variation margin was maintained and transferred throughout the process (as we note below from recent IMF filings). What appears to have happened is that dealer to dealer variation margin has been, let's say, less rigorous as perhaps all collateral was netted up across all exposures (or simply ignored on the basis of government backstops). The far bigger question then is: are banks simply marking ALL sovereign CDS at par, and not paying off cash to other dealers? Remember it only takes one counterparty in the chain to turn net into gross and quality collateral seems tied up a little right now at the ECB (or with margin calls).

Ex-ECB's Juergen Stark Says ECB's Balance Sheet "Gigantic", Collateral Quality "Shocking"

The German criticism of a mess they themselves have enabled (and benefit from via peripheral current account deficits funded via TARGET2 as shown previously here) at the ECB continues, and following public protests by Bundesbank head Jens Weidmann about recent ECB activity, it is the turn of former ECB executive board member Juergen Stark to take center stage. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine, warned that following the massive expansion in the ECB's balance sheet, in which it is clear to anyone that the ECB will accept used candy bar wrappers as collateral, that "the balance sheet of the euro system, isn't only gigantic in size but also shocking in quality."

A&G's AIG Moment Approaching: Moody's Downgrades Generali, Cuts Megainsurer Allianz Outlook To Negative

For a while now we have said that the very weakest link in Europe is not the banks, not the ECB, not triggered CDS, and not even the shadow banking system (well, infinitely rehypothecated Greek bonds within a daisychain of broker-dealers, which ultimately ends up at the ECB at a negligible repo discount, that could well be the weakest link - we will have more to say about this over the weekend) but two very specific insurers: Italy's mega insurer Assecurazioni Generali, which at last check had more Greek bonds as a % of TSF than anyone else, and Europe's biggest insurer and Pimco parent, Allianz, which is filled to the gills with pretty much everything (for more on Generali, or as we like to call it by its CDS ticker ASSGEN read here, here, here, and here). Well, Moody's just gave them, and the entire European space, the evil eye, and soon the layering of margin calls upon margin calls, especially if and when Greece defaults and a third of ASSGEN's balance sheet is found to be insolvent, will make anyone who still is long CDS those two names rich. Assuming of course the Fed steps in and bails out the counterparty the CDS was purchased from.

Half Of Citi Pretax Income Over Past Two Years Comes From Loan Loss Reserve Releases

Wonder why nobody trusts bank numbers, and why US financial institutions trade at some fraction of book value? The chart below should explain a big part of it. As can be quite vividly seen, of the $28 billion in pre-tax net income from continuing operations "generated" over the past two years, exactly half, or $14 billion, has been due from a simply accounting trick, namely the release of loan loss reserves, which have been positive for 8 quarters in a row, and which in the just completed quarter amounted to more than the actual pretax number, confirming EPS would have been negative absent accounting trickery (source). One wonders what happens to Citi Net Income once the world openly re-enters a recession, and releases have to become builds again... And for those who enjoy the myth of reported numbers, and are trying to reconcile the resurgence in bank stocks with abysmal earnings, yet wish to understand why Citi has let go the well known Rohit Bansal, and Chris Yanney, who headed the bank's distressed and HY trading respectively, below is also a chart showing the dramatic collapse in the bank's Securities and Banking revenue which just came at the lowest in the past two years, with Norta American top line in particular being decimated.