Mindless Risk Taking

Satyajit Das’s book, Traders, Guns & Money, opens with a great anecdote about a meeting with an Indonesian noodle company. The noodle men were “Indonesians of Chinese extraction,” Das writes. “They were part of the infamous ‘bamboo network’ of ethnic Chinese business interests that crisscrossed South East Asia.” The noodle shop was an old business, plying an ancient and humble trade, the kind you find throughout Asia. Sounds like a nice simple business, right? Yes, but…

The noodle company got itself into some trouble. To simplify the story greatly, it basically lost a lot of money using derivatives to bet on dollar-rupiah movements. The loss suffered was, in fact, more than the capital of the company itself. At one point, Das writes: “What this had to do with producing noodles was a mystery.”


Unfortunately, this kind of story riddles the markets today like worms in an otherwise worthy cut of swordfish. There are so many of these incidences and they are ruining companies and investors across the world. It takes a nasty crisis like the one we are in to expose all these things. And the rot is extensive.

I want to share with you three little-reported events and one historical example that all show how pervasive this mindless risk-taking became during the last few years. They would be almost comical if they weren’t true.

First, consider the sad example of several Mexican and South American companies that made, large, company-jeopardizing currency bets. For example, Mexico’s third largest retailer, Controladora Commercial Mexicana (COMERCIUBC: MXK), recently filed for bankruptcy after losing so much money speculating in the forex markets. What does currency speculating have to do with selling tortillas, milk and eggs? Nothing. That’s the point.

Similarly, Sadia (SDA: NYSE), a poultry producer; Cemex (CEMEXCPO: MXK), a cement outfit; and Gruma in tortillas – all lost huge amounts of money on currency bets. Aracruz Cellulose (ARA: NYSE), the much admired pulp giant of Brazil, owes more than $2 billion to its banks for making bets on currencies that went sour. What was once a great franchise has been brought to its knees. It will take years to pay that back and debt payments now make up 40% of its pre-tax earnings.

The second example of mindless risk-taking is the story of so-called “portable alpha.” Apparently, the brain trusts that run pension funds thought this strategy sounded like a good idea. What is it? I still don’t understand it fully. But it basically amounts to a leveraged bet on the stock market. If you lose, you lose big as many pension funds are finding out. So now the Pennsylvania state employees’ pension fund, for instance, will have to take a multi-billion bath on this exotic investment strategy.

As the Wall Street Journal reports: “The stock-market downturn could force the Pennsylvania state employees’ pension fund to make cash payments of $2.5 billion or more to trading partners on Wall Street.” The fund has only $27 billion in total. At least, it had $27 billion.

Several other funds have reported billion dollar losses on portable alpha strategies. I can only imagine how many more institutional investors are in the same boat. The people running these things and advising these people should all find other work.

The third example is so-called “accumulators,” which is another kind of tactic for placing highly leveraged bet on stocks, currencies or commodities. I don’t want to get into the details. It’s so complicated; it would take me a page to explain it. Just know that, like “portable alpha” if you are wrong, you lose big.

And yet all kinds of wealthy individuals and businesses have gotten wrapped up in these things. Accumulator losses are showing up in some unlikely places. For instance, VeraSun Energy Corp. (VSUNQ: OTC), which makes ethanol, filed for bankruptcy in part because of big losses on accumulators tied to the price of corn. Citi Pacific (CIY: ASX), a Chinese conglomerate, lost $2 billion on accumulator contracts linked to currencies.

Billions and billions of dollars lost on nonsense. There was no reason for anybody to buy these things – especially when they clearly did not understand the risks involved. The losses are so bad in Hong Kong that Any Xie, an independent economist, said recently that “Accumulators are ruining Hong Kong.”

I’ll offer one other example of this kind of recklessness that is both a historical and contemporary study: Goldman Sachs.

I just recently finished perusing Charles Ellis’ new history The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs. I was particularly interested in the early history of Goldman Sachs. I thought I would come away thinking how Goldman Sachs used to be a simpler business. I thought Goldman’s history would show how it took prudent risks with adequate equity backing those risks. My conclusion would then be that the current crop of leaders at Goldman were just reckless and ruined a franchise that had been around since the 1880s.

In fact, that’s not what I learned at all. From Goldman’s earliest days as a commercial paper specialist it operated with minimal capital. All through its history, it has been a business that took big risks and often took huge losses. That Goldman even exists at all today is something of a financial miracle.

In reading this history, I was struck by how the company found itself in the soup again and again and again. In the 1920s, one of the biggest speculative busts was in investment trusts in which a small amount of capital supported a spider’s web of investments in other companies. Guess who had the biggest blow-up of them all?

Goldman was big in this through a subsidiary called Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation, which basically lost everything for its investors. Ellis writes:

“While all the investment trusts suffered, Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation – because it was so large and so highly leveraged…became one of the largest, swiftest, and most complete investment disasters of the twentieth century.”

The loss to Goldman Sachs itself was enormous. It basically wiped out thirty years of profits and eliminated the “fruits of all the labors of a generation.”

Fast forward to 1970 and the biggest bankruptcy in the country at that time. You find Goldman was waist-deep in it. Penn Central at the time of its bankruptcy in 1970 was the eighth largest corporation in the country. Again, Ellis writes: “the loss it [Penn Central] threatened to impose on Goldman Sachs was not only larger than any prior loss, it was larger than Goldman Sachs.”

And so it is today, that the company once again finds itself in the middle of yet another big crisis that threatens its very existence. I don’t know about you, but I have to wonder about all the brains at Goldman Sachs and all the people who say what a great firm it is. Seems to me, for such a bunch of supposed geniuses, they routinely shoot themselves in the foot, time and time again. You don’t find Berkshire Hathaway fighting for its life every decade.

All of these anecdotes scream at me to avoid the complex and the leveraged, which often means a potential for a mega-loss if you’re wrong. The problem is these kinds of bets infect many companies, as I’ve shown, even when they have nothing to do with the core business. Even otherwise seemingly simple enterprises, like making tortillas or producing chicken, have been hurt.

The advice I have is not novel, but bears repeating since so many seem to forget it. Stay away from anything you don’t understand. (All those folks who lost money with Madoff in his $50 billion Ponzi scheme would’ve saved themselves a lot of money just with this single insight.) And avoid excessive leverage. It’s one thing to lose money. It’s another thing to lose it taking on stupid and pointless risks.

Chris Mayer

January 8, 2009