“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” –Stevie Ray Vaughan

Ok, so my mother never loved me. I reveled in schadenfreude as I watched the big money go down in flames buying financial fiascos during 2008/09.  My twisted ego might be comforted but what can we learn for the future? Try to think through what makes financial stocks difficult to value and especially risky in a credit crisis.  We will discuss under the heading, lesson, near the end of this post.

Richard Pzena, called one of the smartest men on Wall Street, nearly sank his money management firm Pzena Investment Management, Inc. (NYSE:PZN) by buying FRE, FNM and Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C) in early 2008. See prior post: http://csinvesting.org/2011/11/15/pzena-pzn-disappointment-despair-and-tax-loss-selling/

Below is an inteview in early 2008 with Richard Pzena. Mr. Pzena gives his reasons for owning Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC), Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA) Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C)


A Citi revival?

Earlier this week, I talked with Richard Pzena, one of the deans of the value camp. His company, Pzena Investment Management (PZN, news, msgs), which I mentioned last week as a buy on big dips, runs $25.5 billion in value money for clients worldwide, including that once-sterling John Hancock fund that’s now in the tank. He was defiant, contending that he expects to double his money on such road kill as Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C), Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA), and Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC) over the next three years. I think he’s dreaming, but he does manage $25.49 billion more than I do, so perhaps you should lend him an ear.

Pzena’s main point is that though losses in subprime mortgages have generated the most headlines in the sector, few banks actually have much exposure to them. He sees Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C), for instance, as a global consumer-credit business that generates most of its money by issuing plastic overseas. The way he sees it, virtually every adult has a credit card while few have subprime loans, so what’s the problem?


To be sure, Citigroup has had monumental write-downs on its mortgage portfolios and gotten stuck with illiquid structured investment vehicles on its books, and credit card defaults will lead to more losses. But before too much longer new management will have taken out the garbage, and the remainder of the company will have a chance to shine again.

“We view it as a great global franchise that’s inefficiently priced,” Pzena says. “We don’t think the real value of the firm has come down at all, even though it’s lost over $125 billion in market cap.”

Pzena says he doesn’t know how long he will have to wait to be right — and if he did know, the stock wouldn’t be cheap. His analyst team has torn the company’s financials apart, stress-tested them to the most outrageous negative cases and sees its business getting back on track in every scenario.  (Editor: I doubt even Citigroup’s CFO knew what financial risks the bank’s derviatives traders were taking much less the traders.)

The US dollar could turn out to be the big comeback surprise of the year. One reason: As foreign investors put big money into US companies, those foreign countries are less likely to dump the dollar, MSN Money’s Jim Jubak says.

“The reason it’s so depressed is that no one really knows how bad it will be, but we think that sometime in 2008 there will be clarity and we’ll start to see buyers come back,” he says. “They might have to cut their dividend — which would not be so terrible — to shore up their capital base, but they’re not going out of business. They will weather this storm.”

The manager says his analysts have put their money where their spreadsheets are — buying more Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA), Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC) and Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C) for their personal accounts than at any time in the past five years. “They believe they have properly analyzed these franchises and should buy even though they don’t know when the turn is
coming,” Pzena says. “There’s no dissension about this position within the firm. Buying low is a strategy that has never failed to work.”

No competition left for Fannie and Freddie


Catching falling knives is a strategy that has never failed to leave your hand in shreds, either. But Pzena insists he has history on his side. Financial stocks got extremely cheap in the year before the past five recessions, he says, then began to outperform the market about three months after the recessions’ official start dates, as determined later by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

If the current recession began in the fourth quarter, as many independent experts believe, then it could be time for Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C), Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA) and Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC) to start bucking up. The idea is that when people fear the unknown, they sell. But in the reverso-world logic of Wall Street, once a recession becomes evident, investors begin anticipating a recovery.

Editor of Csinvesting: I hope you caught the flaw in Pzena’s thinking. Buying “low” is a false premise.  A plunging price does not equal value though it may be a place to look for it.

Another famous investor, Jim Rogers, saw Pzena’s picks as over-leveraged death traps. http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/Investing/SuperModels/StockMarketWinterIsMovingIn.aspx?page=1

Rogers, who is equally negative on stocks, was one of the earliest proponents of investing in China and in metals, long before their surge of the past few years. He achieved notoriety three years ago by warning that shares of Fannie Mae  would get crushed once the market realized that it was “unbelievably over-leveraged” and would sink under the weight of its out-of-control derivatives positions. At the time, the government-sponsored mortgage-lending titan was on top of its game, and his warning drew derision. But no one’s mocking him now that Fannie shares have lost 60% of their value.

“There was clearly outright fraud, as they were reporting earnings for years when they really had no idea whether they were making money — they were just making stuff up,” he says. “People are still in denial about Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Association (OTCBB:FNMA)’s value. They took every phony mortgage loan ever made by banks, losing billions, and now the government wants them to take on even more bad loans to bail people out? They should just let it go bankrupt!”

Rogers, who is short Fannie Mae shares, is also short Citigroup (C, news, msgs) and highly negative on its prospects, too.

“Technically, it’s bankrupt, with gigantic off-balance-sheet derivatives positions whose value it cannot possibly know,” he says. Though he believes some large banks can and will go under in the next year or two under the weight of billions of dollars worth of bad loans and

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