According to the recent TIM (Trade Ideas Monitor) report and the TIM Sentiment Index (TSI), institutional brokers became less bullish over the last five trading days, trending towards neutrality by the end of the week (see previous post or youDevise website for additional information on the TIM report). For the five trading days ending June 18, the number of new long ideas as a percentage of new ideas sent to investment managers declined to 70.92%, compared to 73.66% one week earlier (see last week's post). The intra-week trend was positive. Longs represent 64.92% of all ideas in June.

As for individual securities in the U.S. and North America, the US Natural Gas Fund (UNG) and Endo Pharmaceuticals (ENDP) were the stocks most recommended as longs by institutional brokers, while General Electric (GE), CEMEX (CX), and Palm (PALM) were recommended as shorts.

Once again, the TIM Report appears to be an interesting idea and new source of data. I will continue to monitor it to determine its use for trading - i.e., whether the data is too lagging, or has some leading information, or whether is can be used as a contrarian indicator.

Now that the Obama Administration has released its proposed Financial Regulatory Reform: A New Foundation for updating the regulatory structure of the financial system (pdf file of reform, WSJ article), the public debate will begin in earnest regarding the details and proposals in the document. Ironically, while the public seems open to new financial regulation, the release of the document is coming at a time when some citizens are starting to worry about growing deficits and government intervention (see WSJ/NBC poll article), with almost seven in 10 people surveyed saying that they had concerns about federal interventions into the economy. Nonetheless, finding ways to limit risk and prevent another credit crisis through added regulation of banks and hedge funds still rings a populist tone, and is likely to continue to receive support.

Like many others, I feel that there are aspects of the new regulations that seem appropriate and make sense, with others that seem counterproductive. As for those that concern me, I agree with some who point out that it seems odd that the Fed is going to be given greater power (and responsibility) to fix some of the very problems it may have caused or contributed to (see Larry Kudlow article). I also worry that the new proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency could end up just adding new and potentially unnecessary regulations and red-tape paperwork, along with producing counterproductive limits on rates and fees that will do less to protect individual consumers and more to reduce the availability of needed products that are offered to such individuals. Such restrictions, if not properly crafted, are likely to reduce the earnings of financial services companies, and even worse, limit their ability to effectively manage risk (through fee and rate changes).

The idea of requiring companies to retain 5% of all structured product offerings also has me concerned, even though this specific proposal seems to be generating some of the most support, at least initially. Recently I wrote that I have worries about forcing companies to retain a stake in each securitized product they develop since I believe it could actually make companies more risky (since they cannot off-load and manage all their risk, see previous post). Furthermore, while I agree that forcing companies to have some "skin-in-the-game" would make it less likely that they would offer risky products, it also makes it more likely, in my opinion, that they would offer less structured products. While this may be a desired outcome for some, the impact of this would be less liquidity and available credit at a time when the country can least afford it.

Another area that is generating support involves the idea of controlling systemic risk. I too believe that this is a good idea in theory, but am unclear exactly how this would be measured and acted upon. As recently reported in the WSJ (see article), one potential area to start with is leverage. As the chart below illustrates, financial sector borrowing increased steadily between 2004-2007, before dropping in 2008 as companies began unwinding leveraged positions. It is now well known that banks, hedge funds, and average citizens were carrying too much debt, thereby helping to increase systemic risk, and trigger the credit crunch.

Source: WSJ, Fed data

Yale economist John Geanakoplos, who has studied leverage in the economy, believes that regulators need to gather daily data from all market participants and then publish aggregate data. The feeling is that if market participants knew that leverage values were getting to extreme levels, they would be more likely to begin backing-off their own debt and leverage levels in anticipation of eventual market corrections, or restrictions imposed by regulators. Focusing at least in part on debt and leverage seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, measuring system-wide daily leverage changes at banks and hedge funds may be difficult at best, and suspect at worst. Yet, maybe the focus does not need to be on the three person hedge funds that are investing $10-50 million in capital. Getting comprehensive data which includes smaller players may not be necessary. Risk manager Richard Bookstaber - whose book "A Demon of Our Own Design" is recommended reading - believes that focusing on just the largest financial firms and hedge funds would cover roughly 80% of the risk, allowing you to see systemic trends.

At this point it is unclear if such trending information on leverage levels would be enough. Other related areas that could also cause potential cascading effects, such as specific derivative use (i.e., CDS) and counter-party risk, should also be examine - although regulating that which has not yet been developed is obviously difficult. Nonetheless, looking for new ways to measure leverage might be a good place to start for spotting worrisome trends. Such a signal could allow investors, funds, and the Fed (or other regulator) to take action. Of course, what action they take is another area of debate, and potential new area of concern.

Morgan Stanley is attempting to lure hedge fund clients back to its prime brokerage (see WSJ article). As a carrot, Morgan is planning to announce that hedge fund clients will be allowed to hold some of their assets in the MS Trust National Association, instead of being held in the brokerage units of the firm (for a small fee, of course). This could be significant given that many hedge funds are worried about their assets being held in a brokerage unit after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Of interest is that assets held in the trust will not be federally insured, like deposits, but will still nonetheless probably be considered safer given their separation from the brokerage operations. It will be interesting to see if in the months to come whether or not more financial firms follow suit. In the mean time, it is one more indication (among others, see second WSJ article) that the hedge fund industry is starting to get back to normal. You can decide whether that is good or bad.

In a recent Bloomberg article, it was mentioned by the Credit Suisse Group that the Federal Reserve could consider selling options to primary dealers in order to help them ease imbalances in derivative positions that are amplifying swings in interest rates (see Bloomberg article). This sounds interesting, given that a similar strategy was used in 2000 in the form of liquidity options to help head-off potential Y2K funding problems. In addition to options, investors could also use swaps, swaptions, and Treasuries to help hedge interest rate risk.

Of course, such a hedge position may not be possible for others if the new regulation being proposed by the Obama Administration is put in place (see the Washington Post article). One aspect of the new proposed regulatory framework would require firms to retain a stake in each securitized product that is developed. Furthermore,

"The plan also would prohibit firms from hedging that risk, meaning that they could not make an offsetting investment"
While I understand the reasons for proposing such a restriction - the hope that it will cause investment banks to develop less risky, less leveraged, and less opaque products, thereby preventing another 2008 credit meltdown - it seems this could be achieved in a less restrictive, yet more focused way. Forcing companies to keep a piece of the structured security (and subsequent risk) on their books appears counterproductive when it makes more sense to allow and encourage companies to hedge this risk, even if it means passing the risk onto another investor such as a hedge fund willing to take on the risk (and reward). Forcing companies to keep risk on their books will only repeat some of the same problems that various investment banks faced in 2008 when they were unable to sell and shed structured product risk once the credit crunch unfolded.

While forcing these companies to keep some of the structured securities on their books could make it more likely that they would offer less risky products, is this what we really want? One of the benefits of securitization is its ability to free-up capital for more productive uses. While this process certainly got out of control and was misused in some instances, placing a blanket restriction on what can be sold also places similar restrictions on risk reduction and the flow of capital into more productive hands - something we cannot afford to restrict, especially at this time. Here is hoping that the current proposal is just that, a proposal, and that any final legislation will consider the unintended consequences and be more focused on the specific problem that needs to be addressed - uncontrolled risk taking.

36 South Investment Managers, the hedge fund managers who made 234 percent betting on "black swan" events in 2008, are now placing their bets on hyperinflation (see Bloomberg article). The new fund, called the Excelsior Fund, is targeting returns that will be five times the average inflation rate for the France, Germany, Japan, U.K., and U.S. economies. The Excelsior Fund will make its bets on inflation by buying long-dated options that are currently cheap (i.e., typically deep-out-of-the-money options). The fund will be using the options to look for increases in commodities and equity prices, along with increases in bond yields and currency volatility. Given that the options are deep-out-of-the-money, the fund will be very high risk, but carry the potential for very high returns.

Actively managed mutual funds have done well this year, rising 9.9% through June 10, compared to the S&P 500, which was only up 5.3% over the same period (see WSJ article). This comes after a year in which the average stock fund was down 38.9%, dropping 1.9% more than the S&P 500. What is causing the out-performance? It appears to be growth stocks, which are up approximately 11% this year, compared to less than 1%gain for value stocks. Many widely-held tech stocks, such as Apple (AAPL), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Google (GOOG), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Microsoft (MSFT) have helped juice returns. Nonetheless, even with the current out-performance, active funds are still losing business to index funds as investors continue to remember their poor fund performance in 2008 (really poor in some instances).