Investing In An Age Of Transient Competitive Advantages

Posted on August 24, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

In this article I will review the book “The End of Competitive Advantage,” by Rita Gunther McGrath, published by the Harvard Business Review Press in 2013.

I like to think of myself as a “value investor.” That is, I believe that I invest in quality companies that are underpriced. In terms of the quality of the organizations I like to invest in, I look for firms that have established a competitive advantage in their industries and are earning at least a 15% return on equity, after taxes. To judge the quality of management and its staying power, I look for those organizations that have a sustainable competitive advantage, defined as earning a 15% return on equity, after taxes, for a period of five to eight years. And, to capture the fact that a stock may be underpriced, I look for a low price/earnings ratio.

Other factors that have been important in my analysis are the industry share the company achieves and protects and the stability of this share over time. Of course, these are the quantitative factors and must be supplemented by other factors, such as an examination of management, industry make-up, and governmental factors that might contribute to firm performance.

Well, starting right here, Dr. McGrath starts to eat away at this picture. For one, she argues that industry boundaries are no longer that important. She argues that “arenas” are more crucial in the modern environment. The important thing in today’s world is that there are connections between “the outcomes that particular customers want (the jobs to be done)” and “the alternative ways those outcomes might be met” (page 10). Industry lines are not the determinants of what products one should be producing and what markets they should be sold … read the rest

A Wonderful Life for Community Banks?

Posted on December 27, 2012

During the yearend holidays we reach out for the comfort of the familiar.  One of the best ways to do that is to revisit films with a seasonal focus such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and most particularly It’s a Wonderful Life.  Directed by Frank Capra and released December 20, 1946, the film, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed tells the story of a young man, George Bailey, who was plunged into a difficult and entirely unfair situation as a result of the actions of others beyond his control.  George is driven to a point of such deep despair that he is considering suicide.  He is saved by a guardian angel and the support of those for whom he has toiled unselfishly for years.  For decades the film has provided us with the assurance that, if we just do right by others, we will ultimately be redeemed.

Great film of course, but did you ever think about the underlying issues that forced George Bailey to consider jumping off a bridge?  Bailey begrudgingly inherited a community-oriented Building and Loan Association in the 1940’s when just before Christmas his Uncle lost over $8,000 on the way to make a deposit.  The regulators had just arrived at the Building and Loan and found the loss.  They promptly issued a warrant for George’s arrest.  Even though he was innocent George was so unwound by the actions of the regulators that he felt his life was at end.

Fast forward to 2012.  This time don’t look for a friendly angel to save a Jimmy Stewart style hero.  On December 4, 2009 the FDIC seized Buckhead Band and sold its assets to State Bank and Trust Company of Macon, Georgia which also assumed the liabilities of the Buckhead Bank.  On December 3, 2012, just one day … read the rest

Microcap Risk – Finders Fee Payment To Unregistered Broker Leads To Chapter XI

Posted on December 2, 2012

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Entrepreneurial companies must now consider a new regulatory risk when raising money for their businesses or negotiating an M&A transaction.  Payment of finder’s fees to unregistered brokers could lead to corporate bankruptcy.  It did so recently for a small biotech firm, Neogenix Oncology, Inc.

Federal and state laws mandate that professionals who arrange/negotiate capital investment or merger and acquisition transactions for a fee based on the success of their efforts must be registered as securities professionals.  I decided when I got into the investment banking business in 1982 that, as expensive and time consuming as regulatory compliance might be, I would have to be registered.  Our firm has chosen to incorporate its own broker dealer, but there are other options open to investment banking professionals.

It’s long been an open secret that some or perhaps even many business advisors have chosen a different path and raise money or negotiate M&A deals without registration.  For many smaller intermediary firms, this has not posed a problem.  Either their activities have not been noticed by the regulators or they are too small for anyone to care.

It now appears that the SEC may be using another approach to assure compliance – turn the accountants and lawyers into its policemen.  In October 2011 Neogenix received a letter from the SEC requesting that the company “provide certain information relating to payments made to third parties (referred to as “finders’ fees”) in connection with the sales of the Company’s common stock”.  Following up on the SEC inquiry Neogenix pursued an internal investigation and reported in its 10-K filed July 12, 2012.

“….. finders’ fees were paid to individuals and entities whom the Company has not been able to confirm were registered as broker-dealers or otherwise properly licensed under applicable state law to participate … read the rest

Categories: Bankruptcy, Distress, Entrepreneur, Investment Banking, JOBS Act, Middle Market, SEC Regulation, Small Business, Uncategorized, Venture Capital

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Time for Transparency on Bailing Out the Banks’ Bondholders

Posted on April 20, 2009

This morning the New York Times reported that the Treasury is planning to convert TARP holdings of preferred stock into common equity at a number of banks. As we previously raised, the real issue is whether and why the Treasury is committed to protect the bondholders of the big banks. There is a great deal of capital in the banking system in the form of unsecured debt.  In a normal world, when a company goes broke, some or all of the debtholders’ interests will ultimately be converted to equity capital either in bankruptcy or in an out of court restructure.  The current issue of The Institutional Risk Analyst makes a very interesting proposal for conversion of Citibank debt into equity, which would address the capitalization issue once and for all.  It’s time the Treasury explains in clear English why they are electing to further commit taxpayer funds to bailing out the big banks’ bondholders.

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Categories: Bailouts, Bankruptcy, Banks, Business Survival, Distress, Economics, Junior Capital

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We’re Seven Months into the Great Mess. What’s Going to Happen Next?

Posted on April 14, 2009

Seven months ago (Monday September 15, 2008) we learned of the failure of Lehman Brothers and soon thereafter the sale of Merrill Lynch and the bailout of AIG.  These events were the culmination of a series of market shocks that had started with the demise of the sub-prime loan market, had accelerated with the collapse of the leveraged loan market starting in August 2007 and had included the takeover of Bear Stearns in March 2008.  But September 15, 2008 is the current era’s equivalent of 1929’s Black Monday.

Since September we have witnessed dramatic governmental actions designed to prevent the current crisis from descending into a downward spiral reminiscent of the 1930s.  For the moment, the stock market seems to be giving these actions (as well as our charismatic new President) a vote of confidence.  We’re also hearing from some of our clients that their operations improved in March and that they are more optimistic about their businesses looking toward the summer.  Another “green shoot” is the middle market M&A market, where I spend much of my time.  The M&A market has definitely improved since the first of the year and indications are that it will remain reasonably strong for a while, at least for profitable companies in favored industries such as government contracting, IT services and health care.

So what is the economic scorecard to date and what can we expect to see going forward?

1)    The World economy is in the midst of the first major global recession of the postwar era.  Global trade has been collapsed for many of the major exporters, particularly China, Japan and Germany.

china-exports1

While there have been some recent hints that the rate of decline is slowing (the second derivative of negative growth) or even bouncing a little, world trade is still an area of significant concern.  … read the rest

It’s Raining; Has Your Banker Asked for the Umbrella Back?

Posted on April 13, 2009

The old saw goes “a banker is someone who lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining and asks for it back when it begins to rain.” It’s certainly raining now and we are working with a number of clients who are in danger of losing their umbrellas. My partners Stan Cutter and Mike Zook have recently published a very insightful article which addresses some of the issues companies are facing with their banks. One of their key points: you may be in trouble even if your company is performing well, if your lender is in trouble or has recently been sold. We’ve reproduced the article in its entirety below:

Is Your Company Ready to Face Financial Institutions in a TARP World?

By Stan Cutter and Mike Zook

What is your strategy if your bank calls and invites you to find a new lender? One of our customers recently met with their banker to find that their loan renewal would have substantially different provisions. The Bank requested:

* Higher collateral levels,
* Lower availability,
* An interest rate floor provision,
* Increased fees for changing the agreement.

Another customer was told to raise more equity before the bank would renew the loan!

Risks and Opportunities of Credit Restructuring Issues

Today’s credit environment is characterized by market turbulence, bank consolidation, markets in disarray and increased regulatory scrutiny. Many companies find themselves weathering the storm although business is not as good as they would like. But, even if every interest and principal payment has been made on time and there is no apparent reason for concern, the onset of credit restructuring issues can be sudden.

Companies and managers need to understand the risks and opportunities surrounding the financial markets’ impact on capital availability. While most often the impact is felt through banking relationships, the impact … read the rest

Categories: Banks, Business Survival, Distress

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How Much Risk is the Treasury Really Assuming from the Financial Institutions?

Posted on April 7, 2009

What does it really mean to talk about saving “the banks”?  The Treasury would like us to have a mental picture of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, protecting the savings and mortgages of the good citizens of Bedford Falls.  In truth, for all material purposes, the current Public Private Investment Plan (PPIP) is about saving four mammoth financial institutions considered too big to fail, BankAmerica, Citicorp, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo.

These financial behemoths, each as large as a significant number of the world’s national economies, bear as much relationship to the Bedford Falls Building and Loan as a rowboat does to the Titanic.  For public consumption, however, it is convenient for the Treasury to continue to describe its efforts as a rescue of “the banks”;   rescuing hydra-headed financial giants just doesn’t have quite the same ring.  Additionally by lumping these institutions under the category of “banks” the Treasury can continue the fiction that the bailout is about “getting the banks lending again.”

Notwithstanding this fiction, as we showed last week, even Secretary Geithner has abandoned the pretense that the PPIP program is about encouraging direct bank lending in the traditional sense of taking deposits and making loans, admitting that the primary purpose of PPIP is to restore the strength of these wholesale institutions so that they can restart the private securitization markets that fueled the credit bubble earlier in the decade.  So here’s the plan.  Just remove the toxic assets from the books of the financial giants and the system will be restored to its former picture of robust health.  Hopefully the PPIP will be sufficient to fund the fix.  If not the Treasury can use its proposed new liquidation authority, invest few hundred billion dollars more to fill the gaps and sell the freshly minted “clean” … read the rest

Categories: Bailouts, Banks, Business Survival, Business Turnarounds, Distress, Economics

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Beware the Ides of March

Posted on March 1, 2009

We won’t be seeing bloody togas on the Senate steps, but there will be great pain and destruction in the American business community.  There’s an annual ritual which starts in March and generally goes through sometime in April, in which tens of thousands of private companies, the heart blood of the American economy, deliver their annual audits and reviewed financial statements to their banks.  For many the results will not be pretty.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, firms throughout the manufacturing, retail and distribution economy, and likely in a number of other sectors as well, were hit by a strong downdraft precipitated by the credit crunch of September and October.   Many of these companies sustained a precipitous drop-off in revenues and resulting operating losses for the quarter.  Others may have seen a dramatic decline in the value of their inventories, particularly if they were in industries dependent on volatile commodities or imported raw materials.  The bottom line is that many companies will report a loss for the fourth quarter and a substantial number for the full year 2008 as well.

Contrary to current opinion, banks don’t like to take losses and will do everything in their power to avoid doing so.  Until now banks have been relatively lenient with their commercial borrowers other than in industries related to residential construction, where the reality of losses is too obvious to be ignored.  Unfortunately for their borrowers, however, banks are subject to strict accounting rules and answer to regulatory supervisors that demand that action be taken to head off potential loan losses.  Delivery of the 2008 annual audits and reviewed financial statements will make the potential for problems all too obvious.

Partially in response to the CRA (Community Reinvestment Act), within the last ten years many banks began to apply credit scoring and other “objective” … read the rest