Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Investing Solo – Floating-Rate Debt

Yesterday I posted comments (link) about my search for promising individual floating-rate preferred stocks, in the absence of any viable fund that I know of, as a hedge against rising interest rates and inflation. I thought I would add here a few comments about some other floating rate exchange-traded debt I’ve looked at. I am an individual investor with no background in finance or markets, and, of course, nothing I am about to say constitutes investment advice of any kind – merely my personal observations and decisions, and I do not vouch for the accuracy of any representation – every investor needs to do his/her own due diligence.

Most floating rate exchange-traded debt securities are traditional preferred stock issues, but there are some others, although not many. In the category of exchange-traded bonds, two are from Sallie Mae, but I am afraid of this outfit in light of what happened to Fannie and Freddie, notwithstanding a recent favorable Barron’s article. The one issue I’ve looked at is PFK, from Prudential Financial rated investment grade, paying a monthly dividend based on a CPI-derived inflation rate metric plus 2.4 percentage points with a floor of zero. At today’s close of $25.35, PFK sports an annual yield of about 3.5%. It’s trading just a bit over par of $25, and will mature in 2018, a little over 7 years from now. Reference points are that I can find currently low-IG fixed-rate exchange-traded bonds at over 7% and riskier floating-rate preferred stock with fully-taxable equivalent yields of over 5.5% at the 35% bracket. One can only guess at how fast interest rates will rise and to what levels between now and 2018 when this note matures; and I must factor in the capital loss of $0.35 at maturity, which is about 1.4% of today’s price. This security has traded as high as $26.83 in the past 12 months, which, apart from a current low interest rate, means at that price a loss of $1.83 (6.8%) in 7-8 years. It seems to me that buyers of PFK at that price were betting on a lot of inflation and relatively soon. On the other hand, PFK has traded as low as $19.36 in the past year, which would mean a capital gain of $5.64 per unit if held until maturity; as a very rough estimate, assuming 8 years till maturity, that’s a straight average base of about 3.6% per year before the variable interest payment. But that deal is now gone, and PFK is not attractive enough to me, given my guess at the size and speed of rates to come, at the current price of a little over $25.

UBS-D is a floating-rate low-IG trust preferred from UBS that pays a monthly distribution, reset monthly, at the annualized rate of 0.70% point above the one-month Libor. The issue is past call with no maturity date. The current annualized rate is a measly 1.47% at today’s close of $16.98. However, QuantumOnline’s interpretation is that this security qualifies for the 15% QDI tax rate, so, if true, the 1.47% nominal annualized yield translates to an annualized fully taxable equivalent yield of about 1.92% at the 35% rate. A little bit better but not enough for me at this time. But since this security has buyers at this price, there clearly are people whose views of the inflation risk lead them to this security at this yield.

So, as to my original challenge – finding good investments in exchange-traded individual floating-rate debt securities.  So far I’ve been disappointed – there are relatively few floating-rate IG securities to begin with, and those I’ve looked at have been bid up to prices consistent with what seems to me a fairly aggressive view of the timing and height of interest rates to come. Thus for now I’ve taken only smallish positions in two floating-rate preferred stocks, which offer much better current yields than the exchange-traded debt I've looked at albeit in a more risky type of security, while I brace for interest rates to come.  Given the relative paucity of floating-rate exchange-traded debt and preferreds, it seems to me that investors interested in this category must look to individual securities rather than waiting for a fund to come along.  

Mike Parenti

Related posts:
Investing Solo – Floating-Rate Debt - GFY

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Investing Solo in Floating-Rate Preferred Stocks

I have been invited to post at this blog my current thoughts and approach to investing as an individual investor with no background in finance or securities with the thought that my experiences might be of some interest. Writing things down can also benefit me if it helps clarify my own thinking. I devote 5-10% of my savings to moderately higher-risk investing to boost overall portfolio performance and as an intellectually interesting challenge that helps keep me off the streets. Most of my portfolio is in a fairly conservative mix of stock and bond mutual funds, ETFs, and some closed-end funds (CEFs) diversified across investment styles, management firms, and accounts. Of course, nothing I am about to say constitutes investment advice of any kind – merely my personal observations and decisions.

Lately one of the areas of particular interest to me involves securities that pay a variable, or floating, interest rate. Given the widespread expectation that not only are interest rates going to rise (they can’t get much lower) but possibly rise a lot given the current global governmental fiscal debacles, floating rate debt securities are attracting a lot of commentary and interest. In addition, given the recent sell off in debt securities, there may be some bargains for investors willing to be a bit contrarian, since “buying low” usually requires the nerve to buy at a time when most others are selling.

The two largest categories of such securities accessible to the small individual investor like me are bank loans and preferred stocks; there are only a few individual floating rate securities of other types of exchange-traded debt – exchange-traded bonds, trust preferreds, and trust certificates (third party trust preferreds). Bank loans are not exchange-traded but are available via mutual funds (such as Fidelity’s FFRHX) and closed end funds (such as TLI, JFR, and BHL), and I have investments in bank loans in both investment vehicles. Bank loans are non-investment grade debt and of course as such carry a higher interest rate, but are usually relatively short-term, senior and secured, and usually have a floating interest rate.

I have had for some time modest positions in CEFs such as JPS and HPF that primarily hold preferred stock, trust preferreds, and trust certificates, but these funds are not focused primarily on floating rate debt. The one CEF that is – JFP – melted down a while back because many of the issuers of the preferred stock it held (lots of banks) stopped paying their non-cumulative dividends.

Therefore, an investor with a particular interest in preferred stocks that pay a floating dividend rate that qualifies for the 15% federal tax rate (qualified dividends) must look to individual securities. Although I generally have a strong preference for funds and only have a few individual securities in my entire portfolio, I have been looking at individual preferred floaters since I don’t have funds (other than the wounded JFP) to consider that invest primarily in them.

At QuantumOnline (, considered by many who comment online to be one of the, if not the, best source of information about exchange-traded debt securities, earlier this month I found a total of 24 floating rate preferred stock issues, about 5% of the total universe of preferred stocks listed there. Of these 24, 14 were rated investment grade (most at the lowest level) by both Moodys and S&P, and another 6 had one of the two ratings at IG.

Most issuers are banks (e.g.: HSBC; UBS; Bank of America) or financial companies (e.g.: Goldman Sachs; Morgan Stanley). All but one pay dividends quarterly and those dividends are non-cumulative with all but one.

It’s interesting, and very challenging, for me to try to assess the varying market valuations based on variables such as credit rating of the issuer, chance of dividend interruption, method of calculating the interest rate, the current rate, etc. The issues I’ve looked at all are paying dividends right now at the interest rate floor, and given the variable to which the rate is pegged, commonly the 3 month Libor which is currently well under 1%, interest rates would need to rise considerably before the floating rate would rise above the set minimum.

So far I’ve settled for modest investments in two IG issues, but I am keeping an eye on the group for entry points based on share prices and the yields at those prices. The first is MET-A (or METprA) from Met Life, whose variable rate is pegged to the 3 month Libor + 1% point with a 4% floor based on a $25 par. As such, the current dividend is $1.00, which, at today’s close of $23.18, delivers a dividend yield of about 4.3% that equates to about 3.67% after federal taxes at the 15% rate. The fully-taxable equivalent yield at the 35% rate is 5.6%. So the question for an investor like me is of course whether this security offers sufficient value. Met Life seems reasonably strong to me, and although part of the attraction is that it’s an insurance company and not a bank, given what happened at AIG there's no shortage of worry. Is the current yield enough for a period of time that could be a long one -- who knows how fast interest rates will rise to eventually push the coupon above the 4% floor; but when rates do start to rise, might they rise fast and cause the price of this preferred to shoot up past a reasonable entry point at that point in time? Does buying at a price below $25 par offer a great enough chance of capital gain in addition to the dividend?

The second issue is HBA-D (or HBAprD) from a subsidiary of HSBC, a very large global bank, whose variable rate is pegged to the highest of three different US Treasury debt metrics and has a floor of 4.5% and a ceiling of 10.5% based on a $25 par. Of particular interest to me is the fact that the dividends are cumulative, offering some protection in the event they are suspended; dividends from the other two HSBC floating rate preferreds are not cumulative.

At the floor of 4.5%, the current dividend is $1.125, which, at today’s close of $24.73 delivers a dividend yield of about 4.5% that equates to about 3.87% after federal taxes at the 15% rate. The fully-taxable equivalent yield at the 35% rate is 5.95%. In my thinking, a very nice rate, provided that HSBC, a bank, keeps paying the dividends, which, though, accumulate if suspended. I am taking some comfort in the fact that, according to a recent article (November 20) in Barron’s on the ongoing issues with banks and their mortgage-related debt, HSBC was ranked 11th of 11 big banks in the estimated dollar value of the loss if bad mortgage securities are forcibly “put back” to the banks.

I am drawn to looking at individual relatively high-yielding debt securities as investments, of course, because of the prolonged, unusually low interest rate environment that seems to me designed by the Federal Reserve to help banks repair their balance sheets at the expense of individual savers like me – a tremendous transfer of wealth to bankers and their investors in the name of stabilizing our financial system. At least as a way to mitigate my risk somewhat in this area of investing, I wish there was a viable mutual fund or closed-end fund from a major fund manager focused primarily on floating-rate preferred stock.

Mike Parenti

Related posts:
Investing Solo -- Floating Rate Debt
Investing Solo – Floating-Rate Debt - GFY

Friday, December 24, 2010

Notre Dame Church in Chicago

Quite a few years ago many a Christmas Eve found me with my family at midnight Mass at Notre Dame Church on Chicago’s near west side. It was a special yearly visit to the Italian Taylor Street “old neighborhood” of big families and special memories. I especially recall peering up into the great dome overhead and marveling at the art work so high up, and even at my age then was able to appreciate how well the church was cared for.

In Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, Fr. George Lane writes that “the words ‘Notre Dame de Chicago’ above the door … recall the illustrious French history of Chicago…. Although Notre Dame parish was founded in 1864, it was actually a continuation of an earlier French church known as St. Louis which was organized in 1850.”

Fr. Lane tells us that the beautiful church is in the Romanesque Revival style, with the main body almost circular in plan surmounted by a 90-foot dome and cupola. The high vaulted ceiling is one of the most striking features in my memory. Fr. Lane also describes “thirty-three beautiful stained glass windows, all imported from Europe, [that] decorate and illuminate the church.” In 1918, after most of the French-speaking residents were gone, the Cardinal gave the parish and church to the Blessed Sacrament fathers to run.

The Notre Dame parish has suffered some set-backs in more recent years. First, the city razed good parts of the parish for the Eisenhower Expressway just to the north, for the West Side medical center just to the west, and for the University of Illinois campus just to the east. Some other Taylor Street churches, such as St. Calistus, survived these depredations, but a special one, Guardian Angel, did not.  Then, Fr. Lane relates that in 1978 the statue of Our Lady atop the cupola was struck by lightning and caught fire, causing extensive damage to the church. But through all that, Notre Dame still stands this new Christmas, on Flournoy Street at Loomis, in the heart of the old neighborhood through which so many lives have passed and become enriched.

R Balsamo

Monday, December 6, 2010

Illinois 2010 Election Results – For Republicans, A Tale of Two Electorates

For Illinois Republicans, last month’s election results were a mixed bag and showed an electorate very schizoid about the two major parties.

First the good news – Republicans won the Senate seat (Mark Kirk), picked up 4 House seats, and held the one Kirk vacated to run for Senate. In Congressional Districts 8, 11, and 14, all of which begin in the Chicago suburbs and extend well into the state, Republicans Walsh, Kinzinger, and Hultgen recaptured long-held seats that had been recently lost to Democrats from inattention, sloth, ideological drift, and incompetence. In addition, Republican Schilling bumped off bumbling Democrat incumbent Hare, a protégé of the late ultraliberal Congressman Evans, in the 17th district along the Mississippi River, and Republican Dold kept Kirk’s old north suburban congressional seat in party hands. Republicans will now hold 11 of the state’s 19 congressional seats. Seven of the 8 Democrat-held districts are in Chicagoland.

But state races were a different story. In the five races for state-wide offices (candidates for governor and lt. governor run together, so voters cast only one vote for a pair of candidates), Republicans won only two, for Treasurer and Comptroller, both open Democrat seats. Incumbent Democrats won the races for Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State. But it wasn’t all name recognition. Republican Bill Brady, in the governor’s race, had reasonable name recognition in Republican suburban DuPage County from previous races, yet received about 17,000 votes less than Republican Dan Rutherford, unknown in the Chicago area, running for state Treasurer. In DuPage County alone, Brady received about 25,000 votes less than Republican Judy Barr Topinka in her run for her old spot as controller; Brady lost to Democrat incumbent Pat Quinn by only about 19,000 votes in the whole state. Many Republican voters split their votes.

The Brady-Quinn race illustrates the electoral challenge for Republicans in Illinois. Using the unofficial results that are available the day after the election, with 99%+ precincts reporting, Republican Brady won 99 counties versus only 3 for Quinn, but still lost because his margins of victory in all those counties could not overcome his poor showing (about 29%) in just one of the 102 – heavily Democratic Cook County. Kirk also won 99 of 102 counties, but ran just a few percentage points better than Brady in Cook County and everywhere else, and that was enough to win his Senate race.

In the state legislature races, Republicans gained some seats in both the Senate and House, but failed to take either from the Democrats, who held large majorities going in to the election.

So Illinois voters, faced with a state functionally bankrupt and run in recent years completely by Democrats, re-elected Democrats to most of the same state offices and state legislature seats, while throwing out 4 incumbent Democrat US congressmen. Hard to figure.

John M Greco

Related Posts:
Observations on the 2010 Illinois Primary Results
Illinois Republicans: Slip, Slidin’ Away

Friday, December 3, 2010

Democrats and Tax Evasion, Like Sterling and Silver -- Tax Law Writer Rangel Joins Tax Collector Geithner and Former Senate Leader Daschle in the Tax Cheaters Hall of Fame

What is it about Democrat politicians and income tax evasion? Just in the last two years, we have seen a slew of prominent Democrats discovered to have evaded federal income taxes big time and then get away scot-free, suffering only the inconvenience of back payments. No jail time, and, to my knowledge, no penalties.

Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, whose position includes being the head of the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service, was found upon his nomination to have evaded substantial taxes years ago. This financial expert blamed it on software miscalculations and oversights, even though he had signed papers at work documenting his understanding that taxes would be due on the extra income in question. Only when nominated did he pay the back taxes with interest, but no penalty. The head of the IRS is a confirmed income tax cheat, and the Obama Democrats are OK with that. Very symbolic.

Prominent Democrat Tom Daschle, the former Senate leader and no doubt a lover of all tax hikes, had his nomination by Obama for a Cabinet post torpedoed by the discovery that he was a tax cheat. Most other Obama tax evading nominees suffered a similar fate, but one other cheater, Katherine Sibelius, now head of HHS, somehow survived. My theory: she was discovered to be a tax evader after so many other Obama nominees had already been outed, and by then there was so much Democrat-tax-cheater fatigue among Republicans and conservative media that she slipped by. It became hard to keep all of the tax evasion stories straight from one another.

Now yet another Democrat, long-time congressman Charlie Rangel, who has been head of the House tax-writing committee for years and also a hearty supporter of tax increases for those of us who actually pay their income taxes, is found to be a long-time tax evader (17 years by reports). But he only suffers a figurative hand slap via a House censure, which House Democrats supported only for political show to hide from the public their true feelings, which were evidenced by the standing ovation they gave Rangel immediately after the public wrist-slap.

No fines, no jail for Rangel, even though the week’s news featured another income tax evader, actor Wesley Snipes, ordered off to prison for the same offense.

For these Democrat politicians, paying taxes is for Republicans, spending taxes is for Democrats. It astonishes me that rank and file Democrat voters are not angry about all this, and that all these Democrats have gotten away with crimes that for everyone else means fines and jail.

John M Greco