TIME Telecom

Why Nokia’s Blockbuster Merger Turned Into Such a Mess

Nokia's chairman Risto Siilasmaa, Nokia's Chief Executive Rajeev Suri, telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent's Chief Executive Officer Michel Combes and Alcatel-Lucent's chairman of the supervisory board Philippe Camus shake hands prior a press conference on April 15, 2015 in Paris.
Chesnot—Getty Images Nokia's chairman Risto Siilasmaa, Nokia's Chief Executive Rajeev Suri, telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent's Chief Executive Officer Michel Combes and Alcatel-Lucent's chairman of the supervisory board Philippe Camus shake hands prior a press conference on April 15, 2015 in Paris.

Nokia marrying Alcatel-Lucent will have a huge impact

The big headlines in tech M&A come when they involve growth – Facebook buying Instagram or WhatsApp, for example – but more often they tie together two aging companies in established but still important industries. Ideally, in those cases, the merging partners will complement each other’s weaknesses, making for a stronger corporate marriage.

Take the mature but competitive telecom-equipment industry. If selling and maintaining the arcane gear that quietly keeps the Internet humming is hardly a sexy industry, it’s crucial if you want to watch a video of a dog trying to catch a taco in its mouth. Last week, when one industry giant (Nokia) offered to merge with another (Alcatel-Lucent) in a $16.6 billion deal, it seemed like a textbook tech M&A deal, one that analysts have been expecting for years.

Instead, the announcement of the deal seems to have left everyone unhappy. Analysts lined up to argue why the tie-up would be troubled, while investors wasted little time in selling off shares of both companies. Since the deal was announced Wednesday, Nokia’s shares have lost 4% of their value and Alacatel-Lucent’s have lost 21%.

This is the rare M&A deal that everyone has long-expected to happen and yet seems to please almost nobody. The telecom-equipment sector has been rife with consolidation and restructuring for years, as companies scramble to grab control of technologies that power broadband, wireless networks, networking software and cloud infrastructure.

Both Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent have been undergoing wrenching restructuring to compete with Sweden’s Ericsson, the market leader, and China’s up-and-comers Huawei and ZTE. Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft for $7.2 billion in 2013, which helped return the company to profitability last year. Now that Nokia is alsoshopping around its mapping software, a merger seems like an important step toward strengthening its remaining operations in the telecom-equipment business.

Alcatel-Lucent has been having a harder time in the past decade. In 2006, the stock of France’s Alcatel was trading near $16 a share when it paid $13 billion for US-based Lucent. But clashing cultures, rigid bureaucracies and a failure to innovate led to years of losses at the combined firm, pulling Alacatel-Lucent’s stock down as low as $1 a share. Years of restructuring brought tens of thousands of job cuts but also, in recent quarters, signs the company may be making a fragile comeback.

So why did everyone expect a Nokia-Alcatel merger to work when the Alcatel-Lucent one failed? For one, there was a complementary fit in terms of the product and geographical markets both companies served. Also, both companies had just emerged from painful restructurings holding smaller shares of a competitive market. By combining, they could command a market share rivaling Ericsson’s and also marshall resources needed for the high R&D costs of next-generation gear.

That was the theory on paper, and for years reports surfaced periodically that the two were talking about joining forces. Talks of Nokia buying Alcatel’s wireless business fell through in 2013, and another report of a merger last December went nowhere. Now that it’s happening, the conversation has shifted from speculation about the deal to the details of how it would work. And some of the details aren’t pretty.

Any large-scale tech merger requires years of integration of sales, engineering and managerial ranks. In the best case, it takes years to complete. In the worst, it leads to entrenched fiefdoms and a bureaucratic hall of mirrors. And in areas where there is overlap, job losses will follow. But Alcatel-Lucent is partly owned by the government of France, which sees the company as a strategic national asset. It will fight massive post-merger layoffs in France, and the Finnish government is likely to do the same.

Analysts expect the trouble that all this work involves will hamper Nokia for some time. Some argued Nokia should have bought only Alcatel’s wireless assets, but since that didn’t didn’t work Nokia offered a discount for the whole company. And what a discount: Nokia’s bid is worth only 0.9 times Alcatel-Lucent’s revenue last year, well below the average figure of 2.5 times revenue for recent telecom deals. Alcatel-Lucent’s shareholders feel the discount is too much, leading to last week’s selloff.

So as inevitable as a combination of Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent seems, there are regulatory, integration and cultural issues that will complicate things for years. In the meantime, few investors are pleased about the deal. Throwing these companies together may be like, well, that taco heading toward the dog’s mouth: the appetite is there, but in the end all you have is a mess.

TIME Markets

Bloomberg Terminals Experience Outage Across the Globe

The United Kingdom's Debt Management office announced that it had postponed the sale of £3 billion in treasury notes

Bloomberg financial terminals across the globe went dark Friday disrupting operations in the financial world and leading some financial professionals to delay deals.

Shortly before the opening of markets in the United States, a Bloomberg spokesperson told TIME that the company had restored service to “most customers.”

“There is no indication at this point that this is anything other than an internal network issue,” the statement said. “We apologize to our customers.”

Bloomberg terminals are the leading provider of real-time financial data to traders and other financial professionals. The technology’s chat function is also a popular form of communication between traders.

The outages, which began at the end of the trading day in Asia, primarily disrupted markets in Asia. The United Kingdom’s Debt Management office announced that it had postponed the sale of £3 billion, or $4.5 billion, in treasury bills in response to the outage.

Bloomberg terminals are the crown jewel at Bloomberg LP. They reportedly cost $24,000 a year per user and are used by more than 300,000 people.

MONEY stocks

Why Netflix Is Splitting Its Stock

Headquarters of Netflix, Inc., in Los Gatos, California
Tripplaar Kristoffer—Sipa USA Headquarters of Netflix, Inc., in Los Gatos, California

Netflix is asking shareholders to pave the way toward a drastic stock split. But it really doesn't matter -- with a few notable exceptions.

Netflix NETFLIX INC. NFLX -0.8% shares are about to split, probably in a drastic manner. The company is asking shareholders for permission to go as far as a 30-for-1 share exchange. It sounds very dramatic, but most investors really shouldn’t care at all.

Here’s why.

What’s new?

Netflix just filed a preliminary version of its 2015 proxy statement, asking shareholders to vote on seven proposed actions before the June 9 annual meeting. Among the typical issues, including approving Netflix’s chosen auditing firm and reelecting a tranche of directors for the next three years, is a more unusual request straight from the board of directors.

In Proposal Four, Netflix asks for a simple majority vote to approve a vastly expanded reserve of capital stock. This is an important first step toward splitting Netflix shares, which have looked rather pricey in recent years.

The board is currently authorized to issue as many as 160 million common shares. If the fourth proposal is approved, that limit will soar to 5 billion potential certificates.

This move could lead in many directions:

  • Some companies raise their share counts before selling a heap of additional certificates back to shareholders. That’s one way to raise capital — and dilute the stock’s value for current shareholders.
  • It could also go toward a generous stock-based compensation program, which would artificially boost bottom-line earnings, but with another helping of share dilution.
  • Netflix even said the extra shares could be used for share-based buyouts, paying off the target company’s current owners with fresh Netflix stock instead of cash. Again, dilution follows.

Netflix made no bones about the intended purpose, though. The company said it “does not have any current intention” to explore any of the activities I just listed, other than supporting the share-based compensation strategy that is already in place.

Sure, the board reserved the right to issue additional shares for these purposes at a later date, without asking stockholders for another share count expansion. But there’s no reason to expect any of these things to happen anytime soon.

No, this is all about powering “a stock split in the form of a dividend.”

Simmer down now

Now, just because Netflix is likely to get its wish doesn’t mean you should expect the entire 5 billion shares to hit the market right away.

For example, Netflix doesn’t use its entire 160 million share allotment today. The company only has 60 million shares on the market at this time, and could do a simple 2-for-1 split without even asking for shareholder permission.

In fact, it’s absolutely normal to have a large reserve of approved but unprinted shares. Netflix said it set the 5 billion share count to be “consistent with the number of shares authorized by other major technology companies.”

Following that trail of cookie crumbs, you’ll find IBM INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM 4.06% has 988 million shares on the open market but a shareholder-approved maximum allotment at 4.7 billion stubs. Microsoft MICROSOFT CORP. MSFT 3.1% is allowed 24 billion shares but has only issued 8.2 billion. Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 2.24% lifted its approved share count from 1.8 billion shares to 12.6 billion just before running through a 7-for-1 split last year, but has only issued 5.8 billion tickets so far.

All of these major tech stocks sit on approved share counts somewhere in the same ZIP code as the proposed Netflix target. They also have the power to execute a modest stock split anytime they like, or to put their share reserves to work in any of the other actions I mentioned earlier.

It’s just a nice buffer to have, and I expect the Netflix split to stop far short of the maximal 30-for-1 ratio. Something like a 10-for-1 split would leave plenty of future wiggle room while lowering Netflix’s share prices well below the psychological $100 barrier.

What’s the big deal?

In most cases, stock splits are nothing but a massive play on investor psychology. Buying 10 Netflix shares at $470 each serves exactly the same purpose as picking up 100 stubs for $47 each. In both cases, you built a $4,700 position with a single commission-spawning transaction.

But a $47 stock certainly looks more affordable than a $470 version, even if all the usual valuation ratios stay unchanged. And the move actually does make a difference every once in a while.

For example, Apple would not be a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average today if it hadn’t performed a radical stock split first. On the price-weighted Dow, the pre-split Apple ticker would have overshadowed the daily moves of the other 29 members, and the Dow was never meant as a proxy for Apple investments.

Netflix isn’t exactly in position to snag a Dow spot anytime soon, but you never know. Extreme share prices can make for some strange and interesting situations. Keeping share prices low (but not too low!) can save Netflix some sweat if the company ever gets close to a Dow Jones seat — or any other price-based honor that could boost the company’s market status.

Finally, the single-share price might matter to very modest investors who could afford a couple of $47 Netflix shares but would have to save their pennies to get a single $470 stub. Options contracts also become more affordable at lower prices, since they often represent 10 or 100 shares each.

So when capital is tight, lower share prices actually matter. From that perspective, stock splits are shareholder-friendly moves.

NFLX Shares Outstanding Chart

Final words

I expect this proposal to pass, because such plans rarely meet much resistance. Investors tend to like stock splits, and it doesn’t hurt to give the company’s board and management some extra financial flexibility.

Then, we’ll see Netflix pay out a special dividend. For each current share, Netflix owners will receive another four to nine additional shares for a final split ratio between 5-for-1 and 10-for-1.

The move won’t change Netflix’s total market value. Nor will it affect the direct value of your current Netflix holdings. We’ll all get more granular access to the stock. So we can make smaller trades and have more control over the size of our Netflix investments.

This is a fairly nice move with no real downside. But it’s also no reason to break out the champagne bottles and order up fireworks.

It’s ultimately just another housekeeping item that won’t move Netflix stock at all. Or if it does, the change will be based on nothing but day-trader psychology and will fade quickly.

Feel free to buy or sell Netflix shares based on whatever happens in Wednesday afternoon’s first-quarter earnings report. But for all intents and purposes, you can ignore the upcoming stock split.

TIME Media

Why Investors Are So in Love With Netflix Right Now

The Netflix company logo is seen at Netf
Ryan Anson—AFP/Getty Images The Netflix company logo is seen at Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, CA on April 13, 2011.

Nothing is ever straightforward about Netflix earnings–and last quarter was no exception: Netflix shares surged 12% in after-hours trading Tuesday after it reported earnings per share of 38 cents, a long way from the 63 cents a share that analysts had been expecting.

To explain that disconnect, you either have to conclude that Netflix investors have lost their minds or that there’s something else they saw and liked in the numbers. With Netflix, it can be both at once.

Because it’s as if there are multiple companies being analyzed here: the one poised to take over the world, or the one that is breaking the bank to get there. The stock that’s risen 4,000% over the past decade, or the speculative stock with the PE ratio above 160. In the case of Netflix, there’s plenty of room for both arguments.

One reason investors were willing to overlook the big earnings miss is that much of it was caused by the strong US dollar, which lowered international revenue 48%. Without the foreign-exchange losses, Netflix would have reported a 77-cents-a-share profit, above the Street’s expectations. As it was, Netflix reported a $14.7 million net profit, less than half the $35.8 million profit a year ago.

Investors, it seems, are willing to overlook that because of another metric, one that’s particularly scrutinized at Netflix these days: new subscribers. In the US, Netflix added 2.3 million new subscribers net of cancellations, which was well above the 1.8 million adds it had expected. Internationally, Netflix added 2.6 million net subscribers, also above the 2.25 million it forecast.

That was largely because of new original programming the company has creating, like the third season of House of Cards and the debut of new Netflix creations like Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the star-studded drama Bloodline. Netflix has been cultivating series that can appeal in the US as well as abroad, and the new subscriptions suggest it’s working for now.

This quarter, the company is rolling out even more original content, such as the Marvel series Daredevil, released last Friday; a documentary series, Chef’s TableGrace and Frankie, a comedy starring four Emmy award winners; Sens8,a scifi series created by the Wachowskis; and the return of Orange Is the New Black. Those should keep new subscribers signing up, but they’re also adding to spending.

It’s the mounting spending that the Netflix bears often point to. Streaming content obligations (basically, licensing fees for titles coming in the future) rose to $9.8 billion in the last quarter from $7.1 billion a year ago. These figures don’t necessarily affect the current income statement as much as give an indication of how spending will happen in the future, but they are daunting numbers nonetheless.

For the last quarter’s spending, Netflix offers another home-brewed metric, contribution profit. It’s revenue minus content spending and marketing expenses, so it excludes tech infrastructure or administrative costs. It’s an unorthodox metric, but it at least shows how, as Netflix pushes into new markets, content and marketing are performing against revenue.

In the last quarter, the contribution profit from US streaming operations rose 55% year over year to $312 million, or 32% of revenue. International streaming, however, incurred a contribution loss of $65 million, up from a loss of $35 million a year ago. In the current quarter, the contribution loss will swell to $101 million.

On a video call discussing earnings (like its home-brewed metrics, Netflix has its own style of conference call, where a pair of rotating analysts ask questions on a Google hangout), CFO David Wells was asked about how long the spending would keep growing. He reiterated a warning Netflix has made before, that the losses could grow throughout 2015, thanks in good part to marketing in newer markets in Europe and Asia.

“We’ve said we are committed to running the business at global breakeven and we have ambitious plans for international growth,” Wells said. “We’ll have some bigger launches, and we’ve described them as meaningful and significant investments in back half of this year. So you should expect those losses to trend upward and into ’16, and then improve from there.”

The case Netflix has been making has been that it’s spending aggressively to take advantage of a global, long-term trend away from traditional broadcast and cable TV and toward TV streamed over the Internet. Others, like HBO, Hulu and possibly Apple are approaching the same market, but Netflix is racing less to compete with them today than to be ready as the audience and demand for Internet TV emerges.

To get there, Netflix has made it clear it will spend what it needs to, even at the risk of losses or shrinking profits this year. Future content obligations are growing, Wells said, but not faster than current revenue. The company’s big bet is the spending today will translate into faster growth and more profit starting in 2016.

This explains why subscription growth is so closely watched. It’s the clearest measure of whether the spending on new programs and new markets is actually delivering. The bulls believe this long-term growth will come as Netflix has promised.

What it doesn’t explain is why the stock sees such volatile swings whenever Netflix reports its quarterly earnings. For that, you need to look to the stock speculators, who have for years driven Netflix shares to euphoric heights that make its executives uncomfortable, if not themselves.

Netflix’s business may be as bullish as ever, but that doesn’t mean the stock price is fairly valued. It rose $56 to $531.50 on Tuesday’s earnings, making it worth 162 times the profit Netflix is expecting this year. Netflix is making some risky but realistic investments in its future growth. But that risk is nothing compared to what investors are taking on by buying at such a crazy valuation.

TIME Retail

People Are Buying More Fancy Toilet Paper Than Ever

And that could be a good sign for the economy

You may not be able to poop gold, but at least you can wipe with luxe toilet paper.

Luxury toilet paper sales reached $1.4 billion last year, outselling regular toilet paper for the first time in 10 years, reports the Washington Post, citing data from market research company Euromonitor International. Luxury toilet paper sales have grown more than 70% since 2000, and are expected to grow another 9% over the next five years.

Analysts say that while luxury toilet paper (the cushy, quilted, scented varieties) is more expensive than regular toilet paper, it doesn’t break the bank for most consumers—which means it’s a small luxury many Americans feel they can afford.

That’s why some experts say luxury toilet paper sales may even be a sign of economic strength. The last times the luxury brands outsold generic toilet paper were in 2005 and 2000, both boom years for consumer spending.

[Washington Post]

MONEY stocks

Why You Shouldn’t Reach to Grab New Stocks

150312_ISK_SkepticalInvestor
Taylor Callery

As Shake Shack's recent slide demonstrates, while the IPO boom gives you lots of hot companies to take a flier on, you’ll most likely fall flat.

Do you regret missing out on the stunning debuts of Alibaba ALIBABA GROUP HOLDING LTD BABA 0.37% and Shake Shack SHAKE SHACK INC SHAK 3.21% ? Are you now waiting to hail Uber or snap up Snapchat when they go public, as expected?

Before you jump in, remember that when you pick a stock, you’re already taking a leap of faith—but with a newly public company, you’re taking two leaps. First, do you really know enough about the business? Second, has the market had sufficient time to draw its own conclusions so that you are buying at a fairly rational price?

“Anything that’s been trading for a while has been vetted by a whole host of investors,” says John Barr, a manager with the Needham Funds. Not so at or just after an initial public offering, and that’s why you have to tread carefully.

You’ll pay for the honeymoon

IPOs attract big headlines on day one, but surprises inevitably crop up. From 1970 to 2012, the typical IPO gained just 0.7% in its second six months, after the honeymoon effect had a chance to wear off. That’s five percentage points less than other similar-size stocks, finds Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida. The year after that, the average IPO lagged by eight points.

Chinese e-tailer Alibaba, which soared 38% on its first day in September, is getting its dose of reality a bit ahead of schedule. Shares are down 28% lately, after the company surprisingly missed revenue-growth forecasts.

Themes get overdone

It’s easy to be lured by a story. Shake Shack doubled on its first day, thanks to the buzz surrounding high-quality fast-food chains like Chipotle CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. CMG 0.44% . But riding a food trend is hard. A decade ago, overexpansion killed investors’ ravenous appetite for Krispy Kreme doughnuts KRISPY KREME KKD 1.73% , and the company’s shares remain 56% off their peak.

Shake Shack has also entered a crowded battle for foodie dollars: the Habit Restaurants HABIT RESTAURANTS HABT 2.93% , Potbelly POTBELLY CORP COM USD0.01 PBPB 3.22% , and Noodles & Co. NOODLES & CO COM USD0.01 CL'A' NDLS 0.79% all went public recently, and all more than doubled in the first day. Odds are the market is overoptimistic about most of them. Since 2013, 15 stocks have doubled on day one; only two—both biotech firms—are trading above their first day’s close.

The fact is, unless you gain access to an IPO at a great price at issuance, you can’t view those stocks as buy-and-hold investments. And you should avoid any richly priced new stock altogether.

Shake Shack trades at 650 times its earnings. To justify that valuation, Ritter figures the burger chain must grow from 63 stores to nearly 700, each half as profitable as a Chipotle restaurant. That’s a big leap indeed, given that Shake Shack locations aren’t even a third as profitable at the moment.

This story was originally published in the April issue of MONEY magazine. Subscribe here.

TIME Oil

The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

green-gasoline-pump
Getty Images

It isn't supply and demand, as most people believe

I am obsessed with how the top tier of finance has undermined, rather than fueled, the real economy. In part, that’s because of I’m writing a book about the topic, but also because so many market stories I come across seem to support this notion. The other day, I had lunch with Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management and chief of macroeconomics for the bank, who posited a fascinating idea: the major fall in oil prices since this summer may be about a shift in trading, rather than a change in the fundamental supply and demand equation. Oil, he says, is now a financial asset as much as a commodity.

The conventional wisdom about the fall in oil prices has been that it’s a result of both slower demand in China, which is in the midst of a slowdown and debt crisis, but also the increase in US shale production and the unwillingness of the Saudis to stop pumping so much oil. The Saudis often cut production in periods of slowing demand, but this time around they have not. This is in part because they are quite happy to put pressure on the Iranians, their sectarian rivals who need a much higher oil price to meet their budgets, as well as the Russians, who likewise are on the wrong side of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East via their support for the Syrian regime.

Sharma rightly points out, though, that supply and demand haven’t changed enough to create a 50% plunge in prices. Meanwhile, the price decline began not on the news of slower Chinese growth or Saudi announcements about supply, but last summer when the Fed announced that it planned to stop its quantitative easing program. Sharma and many others believe this program fueled a run up in asset buying in both emerging markets and commodities markets. “Easy money had kept oil prices artificially high for much longer than fundamentals warranted, as Chinese demand and oil supply had started to turn back in 2011, and oil prices have now merely returned to their long-term average,” says Sharma. “The end of the Fed’s quantitative easing has finally pricked the oil bubble.”

If this is the case, the fact that hot money could have such an effect on such a crucial everyday resource is worrisome. And the fact that the Fed’s QE, which was designed to buoy the real economy, has instead had the unintended and perverse effect of inflating asset prices is particularly disturbing. I think that regulatory attention on the financialization of the commodities markets will undoubtedly grow; for more on how it all works, check out this New York Times story on Goldman’s control of the aluminum markets. Amazing stuff.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Ruchir Sharma. He is the head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Read next: The U.S. Will Spend $5 Billion on Energy Research in 2015 – Where Is It Going?

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Economy

No Failures in Fed’s Annual Bank Stress Tests

The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Building in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite—AP The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Building in Washington.

All 31 banks the Federal Reserve tested were deemed strong enough

For the first time since the financial crisis, the Fed isn’t handing out any Fs.

On Thursday, the Federal Reserve released the results of its annual bank stress tests. Of the 31 banks the Fed tested—which included the largest U.S. banks, like Bank of America, Citi, and Wells Fargo—as well as some sizable regional banks and the U.S. divisions of large international banks, all were deemed strong enough to weather a severe economic meltdown without any help from the government.

Still, a number of banks, including Goldman Sachs, weren’t far above levels that the Fed requires to pass its test. Regional bank Zions Bancorp, too, just cleared the Fed’s minimum on certain accounts. Zion was the only U.S. bank to fail the stress test last year.

Still, as was the case a year ago, the banks collectively cleared the test by a wider margin than they did in 2014. And the banks didn’t just have more capital — the amount of money they have in reserves to cover losses — than a year ago. The Fed also projected they would have fewer bad loans and fewer trading losses.

The positive stress test results serve as yet another example of how far the economy and the banking sector have recovered since the financial crisis. Lending in 2014 rose nearly twice as fast as it did in any year since the financial crisis. On Friday, the government’s employment report is expected to show that employers added 230,000 positions in February, which would be the 12th straight month in which that figure has surpassed 200,000.

Recently, though, U.S. banks have seen their bottom lines falter. That’s in part because of low interest rates, which has made lending less profitable. But some have wondered whether new regulations and other long-term changes to the financial system have made banks less profitable. Shares of the big banks have lagged the market for the past year.

Others stress the fact that the banks are now safer than they used to be, and that’s better for both the economy and investors. Some economists have even argued the shares of safer banks should be worth more.

All told, the Federal Reserve estimated that the 31 banks would lose just over $490 billion dollars if the economy were to enter a recession similar to the one we experienced in the late 2000s. That’s down from just over $500 billion in bank losses the Fed projected a year ago. Among the nation’s largest financial firms, Morgan Stanley came out looking the weakest. A key ratio the Fed looks at to measure financial strength, the so-called tier 1 common ratio, was projected to drop to the lowest level (among the U.S.’s six biggest banks) at Morgan Stanley. Goldman was in the second worst position. A Fed official said that the regulator included higher losses in stock and bond markets than in the past. That might have hurt Morgan Stanley and Goldman more than the other banks because both banks are more closely tied to trading markets than their immediate competitors.

The initial results appear to be a win for Citigroup and CEO Michael Corbat. Among the big banks, Citi had the highest tier one common ratio. JPMorgan Chase, again, had relatively disappointing results in the Fed’s stress test, coming out only slightly above Morgan Stanley and Goldman. JPMorgan’s large investment bank and trading operations could have hurt the bank’s performance.

The Fed conducted its stress test by looking at how much the banks could stand to lose in their loan portfolios and trading books under an adverse economic scenario. The scenario included a rise in the unemployment rate to 10%, a 60% drop in the Dow Jones industrial average, and a 25% drop in housing prices.

After simulating those losses, the Fed then figured how much capital a bank would have left as a percentage of its remaining loans and investments, weighted for risk. The Fed generally deems a bank healthy if it has enough capital to cover a 5% drop in its assets. At the worst of the financial crisis, the average so-called capital ratio at the largest banks dropped to 5.6%. But the Fed said the average capital ratios of the big banks would only dip to 8.5% in this year’s stress test. That was up from 7.6% a year ago.

This year’s results, though, were skewed by particularly strong results from Deutsche Bank, which scored a tier 1 common ratio of nearly 35% under the Fed’s severely adverse scenario. Then again, Fed officials said that only a small part, perhaps 15%, of Deutsche’s U.S. operations were examined in the test.

Besides the main test, the Fed also tested how banks would do under an economic scenario that was less severe but one that included quickly rising interest rates. The banks weathered that scenario as well.

A Fed official cautioned that while all the banks met the minimum capital levels, the regulator might still reject a bank’s request to increase dividends based on qualitative factors. The Fed will release those results next week.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

MONEY investing strategy

The Track Records of Wall Street’s Top Strategists Are Worse Than You Think

fever graph on screen
Richard Drew—AP

Listening to Wall Street's top strategists is no better than random guessing.

This is embarrassing.

There are 22 “chief market strategists” at Wall Street’s biggest banks and investment firms. They work at storied firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. They have access to the best information, the smartest economists, and teams of brilliant analysts. They talk to the largest investors in the world. They work hard. They are paid lots of money.

One of their most important — and certainly highest-profile — jobs is forecasting what the stock market will do over the next year. Strategists do this every January by predicting where the S&P 500 will close on Dec. 31.

You won’t be shocked to learn their track record isn’t perfect. But you might be surprised at how disastrously bad it is. I certainly was.

On average, chief market strategists’ forecasts are worse than those made by a guy I call the Blind Forecaster. He’s a brainless idiot who assumes the market goes up 9% — its long-term historic average — every year, regardless of circumstances.

Here’s the average strategist’s forecast versus actual S&P 500 performance since 2000:

Some quick math shows the strategists’ forecasts were off by an average of 14.7 percentage points per year.

How about the Blind Forecaster? Assuming the market would rise 9% every year since 2000 provided a forecast that was off by an average of 14.1 percentage points per year.

Underperforming the Blind Forecaster isn’t due to 2008, which forecasters like to write off as an unforeseeable “black swan.” Excluding 2008, the strategists’ error rate is 12 percentage points per year, versus 11.6 percentage points per year for the Blind Forecaster. Our idiot still wins.

The Blind Forecaster wasn’t a good forecaster, mind you. He was terrible. He missed bear markets and underestimated bull markets. In only one of the last 14 years was his annual forecast reasonably close to being accurate. But he was still better than the combined effort of 22 of Wall Street’s brightest analysts.

And the Blind Forecaster required no million-dollar salary. He worked no late nights. He attended no conference calls, meetings, or luncheons. He made no PowerPoint presentations, and never appeared on CNBC. He has no beach house, and was granted no bonuses. He works free of charge, offering his services to anyone who will listen.

Amazingly, these stories aren’t rare. In 2007, economists Ron Alquist and Lutz Kilian looked atcrude futures, a market used to predict oil prices. These markets were actually less accurate at predicting oil prices than a naïve “no-change” forecast, which assumes the future price of oil is whatever the current price is now. The no-change forecast was terrible at predicting oil prices, of course. But it was better than the collective effort of the futures market.

This raises two questions: Why do people listen to strategists? And why are they so bad?

The first question is easy. I think there’s a burning desire to think of finance as a science like physics or engineering.

We want to think it can be measured cleanly, with precision, in ways that make sense. If you think finance is like physics, you assume there are smart people out there who can read the data, crunch the numbers, and tell us exactly where the S&P 500 will be on Dec. 31, just as a physicist can tell us exactly how bright the moon will be on the last day of the year.

But finance isn’t like physics. Or, to borrow an analogy from investor Dean Williams, it’s not like classical physics, which analyzes the world in clean, predictable, measurable ways. It’s more like quantum physics, which tells us that — at the particle level — the world works in messy, disorderly ways, and you can’t measure anything precisely because the act of measuring something will affect the thing you’re trying to measure (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). The belief that finance is something precise and measurable is why we listen to strategists. And I don’t think that will ever go away.

Finance is much closer to something like sociology. It’s barely a science, and driven by irrational, uninformed, emotional, vengeful, gullible, and hormonal human brains.

If you think of finance as being akin to physics when it’s actually closer to sociology, forecasting becomes a nightmare.The most important thing to know to accurately forecast future stock prices is what mood investors will be in in the future. Will people be optimistic, and willing to pay a high price for stocks? Or will they be bummed out, panicked about some crisis, pissed off at politicians, and not willing to pay much for stocks? You have to know that. It’s the most important variable when predicating future stock returns. And it’s unknowable. There is no way to predict what mood I’ll be in 12 months from now, because no matter what you measure today, I can ignore it a year from now. That’s why strategists have such a bad record.

Worse than a Blind Forecaster.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns.

The more you know about the most common mistakes that investors make, the better your likelihood of building lasting wealth. Click here for more commentary on how I think about investing and money.

Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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What the Greek Crisis Means for Your Money

Global markets seem safe enough for now, but a so-called “Grexit” could have unpredictable effects.

As government officials in Greece and the rest of the European Union continue to haggle over the terms of its bailout agreement, you may be wondering: Does this have anything to do with me?

If you are investing in a retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA, the answer is likely “yes.” About a third of holdings in a fairly typical target-date mutual fund, like Vanguard Target Retirement 2035, are in foreign stocks. Funds like this, which hold a mix of stocks and bonds, are popular choices in 401(k)s.

Of those foreign stocks, only a small number are Greek companies. Vanguard Total International Stock (which the 2035 fund holds), for example, has only about 0.1% of assets in Greek companies. But about 20% of the foreign holdings in a typical target date fund are in euro-member countries, and if Greece leaves the euro, that could affect the whole continent.

What’s the worst that could happen? For one, investors and citizens in some troubled economies like Spain and Italy could start pulling their euros out of banks. Also, borrowing costs could go up, and that could hurt economic growth and weigh down stock prices. And if fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then bond yields and interest rates could keep staying at their unusually low levels.

There are some market watchers who see a potential upside to the conflict over Greece, however.

“If you believe the euro is an average of its currencies, it could actually rise if Greece leaves,” says BMO Private Bank chief investment officer Jack Ablin. A higher euro would make European stocks more valuable in dollar terms.

Additionally, he says, if Athens is thrown into pandemonium, then it’s actually less likely other countries will want to follow Greece out of the currency union.

The Greek situation will also have an impact on the bond market. If fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then many bond funds will do well, and yields and interest rates would stay at their unusually low levels.

Perhaps the most insidious thing right now, says Ablin, is uncertainty. Again, a Greek exit from the euro would be unprecedented, and that makes the effect unpredictable—and potentially very scary for the global market. So investors would be wise to keep in mind the possibility of “black swans,” a term coined by statistician Nassim Taleb to describe market events that seem unimaginable (like black swans used to be) until they actually occur.

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