Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A "Safe Haven"?

It’s been a busy month and I haven’t written as often as I usually do. I began thinking yesterday of what topics might be both timely and of interest for an end-of-month post.

There are many. It’s been a very active month for TRE.

LOTS of auctions; another volume record. Lots of new Sellers; some very interesting and some a little puzzling. Lots of established Sellers bringing new Account Debtors to the Exchange; again, some very interesting and some a little puzzling.

Those all suggest good topics.

TRE management has made significant and important efforts to enforce the requirement that Sellers update their financial statements on a more timely basis. Those new statements show that there have been some important swings in the condition of some Sellers: some in a positive direction and some negative.

It’s clear that 2009 was a tough year for many TRE Sellers. I’ve already commented on my own reactions to having to “let go of” some favorite Sellers and to become willing to buy from some Sellers that I’ve shunned in the past. There’s more than one good post in that topic.

And the bidding dynamics have continued to show changes in the relative strength of Buyers and Sellers and to provide some very interesting glimpses into the strategies and motivations of some market participants. Again, good topics to come back to.

But, as I sit here at the end of the day and the end of the month and the quarter, I have to pick a topic. And what strikes me as most important right now is “none of the above”.

I bought more auctions in June than in any of the 13 months that I’ve been an active Buyer. The average expected return on those auctions was higher than the average of any prior month.

I had more auctions close-out in June than in any prior month and none of those auctions was in any way problematic.

It wasn’t a month without some angst but most of that was self-inflicted and that goes with the territory in any investment medium.

And there’s the story…..

It was a month of increasing volume, increasing opportunity and increasing returns.

It was a month whose problems were the problems of managing opportunities.

Contrast that environment with the turmoil in stock market, the currency markets, the commodity markets or the sovereign debt markets. And then there were those who thought that bond yields couldn’t go any lower!

Who would have thought that buying receivables on an upstart electronic exchange would dampen portfolio volatility at the same time as providing incremental return!

Who would have considered this type of investment a “safe haven”.

Now, “safety” is relative and I am not going to downplay the potential risks involved in TRE transactions. I’ve taken pains to make some of those clear in prior posts. But I’m talking about the RELATIVE performance in an admittedly volatile period for other financial markets.

And, also admittedly, the volume of Exchange transactions is still too small to make a meaningful difference in the context of the portfolios of large investors.

But current experience has to be at least a LITTLE intriguing, even to the larger players, as we look forward to the day when TRE volume is a meaningful percentage of its potential.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Business As Usual

I started buying TRE auctions on June 1 of last year. The Exchange was still in its fairly early days of operation and each new auction posted seemed to represent something of an event.

There were two days in the first half of last June, in fact, on which no auctions closed. It certainly seemed at that time that there were more dollars seeking auctions than there were auctions to bid on. So “losing” an auction was, at least for me, kind of a big thing.

There have been many changes in TRE operations and dynamics since that time. By my count, over the same period in June of this year there have been five times as many auctions sold as last year and the average daily dollar volume has increased by a similar factor.

The number of Sellers has continued to increase and, while there are quite a few that don’t make it through our screen, there are quite a few that do. There is now a significant number of Sellers, in fact, that I’m quite pleased to buy from.

One of the happy consequences of the continued maturation of the Exchange is that it no longer feels like such a big deal when an auction is “lost”.

A year ago, the process of analyzing a Seller; analyzing it’s Debtor(s); reviewing the invoices posted; considering the past auction history; deciding to bid; and then actually placing a bid; represented not only a significant investment of time and energy but had an emotional component as well.

It represented a serious commitment. To fail to win an auction after all that actually felt something like a failure.

Well, times have changed. I “lost” two auctions yesterday that I bid on actively. I liked the Sellers. I liked the Debtors. I’d had good experience with each and I offered competitive pricing—actually a series of increasingly competitive bids.

And then those auctions, that I really assumed I was going to win, were just gone; snapped up at prices that I suspect pleased the Sellers quite a bit but left me empty-handed.

But here’s the point……

I didn’t get THOSE two auctions--but later in the day I got two others.

And I know that the Sellers of the auctions I lost are likely to be back very soon and I’ll have another opportunity to buy some of their invoices.

It’s no longer an “occasion” when a good auction is posted for sale. It’s business-as-usual. If I miss one today I’ll have another chance tomorrow.

On the other side of the coin, if a Seller has to pay a little more today because of the dynamics of this particular day’s activity, he can probably count on evening the score on a day when the Buyers are feeling the pressure to put money to work.

In short, what was a novelty a year ago is not a novelty today.

When I log onto the TRE platform tomorrow morning I will have every expectation that I’m going to have the chance to do some business.

Some days will be better than others. You win some and you lose some.

But that’s what a market is about, right.

And that’s what the Exchange has now really become.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When the Evidence Changes

The last decade or so of stock market experience testifies to the truth of the admonition: “never fall in love with a stock”. I confess that I have done that to my ultimate disadvantage more than once.

In essence, the rule tells us that it is perilous to ignore changed conditions; to hold fast to prior decisions when the premises of those decisions change.

Roughly a year and a half into the active life of The Receivables Exchange we’re now getting some information on some longer-term Sellers that allows us to chart the trajectory of their operations and financial condition over a few comparable periods.

(As an aside: I wrote last year suggesting that TRE make an arrangement with a credible academic institution to try to isolate and study the impact of the TRE facility on the financial health of its Sellers and I still think that would be a very useful long-term project!)

My point today, though, is to suggest a TRE analog to the stock market maxim. That is: “never fall in love with a Seller”. And to suggest the inverse, of course: “never hold to a negative conclusion when the evidence turns positive.”

As easy as it might sound, it’s still hard to do!

After analyzing a Seller. And concluding that buying from that Seller is a sound decision. And then actually buying a number of auctions from that Seller. And after getting paid properly for those auctions. It is difficult to look at new information that shows a deterioration in that Seller’s financial condition and conclude that the buy-decision needs to change!

In fact, for me, it is more difficult to “let go” of a deteriorating Seller than it is to re-evaluate one that I’ve previously found too weak. It feels a little disloyal. After all, everything’s gone well… far!

But one of the advantages that I’ve suggested the TRE model provides is that new information can be acted on immediately. I CAN stop buying from a Seller just as soon as new information suggests that’s the right course. And I CAN recognize positive changes in the condition of a Seller and immediately move them onto the “buy list”.

I just have to be willing to act dispassionately based on all of the information in hand.

I have “let go” of a couple of Sellers recently: reluctantly, I’ll admit.

And I have recently bought from a couple of Sellers that were previously on my “don’t buy” list.

So far, I haven’t seen any pattern in the follow-on financial statements of longer-term TRE Sellers. The business of some active Sellers has gotten better over the past year or so and that of others has deteriorated. But it’s far too early in the life of the Exchange, and the economic environment of the past 18 months has been far too tumultuous, to draw any BROAD conclusions at this point.

But the evidence does suggest that consistent re-evaluation is necessary as new information becomes available.

And that we can't assume that today's evidence will necessarily support the same conclusion as yesterday’s.