Saturday, September 20, 2008

Maybach Financial -- Boiler Room?

In my never-ending quest for information on companies I might want to invest in, I happened across an independent broker research firm called Maybach Financial the other week. I signed up as a member to get access to some of their analyst reports on companies I already own and am thinking of buying, reasoning taht the more information I have, the better off I am, regardless of the source.

The fact that membership didn't cost anything was a huge red flag flag to begin with, but I figured there was no harm in trying. After about 20 minutes of surfing through their bare bones site (no search engine? what's that about?) I gave up and pretty well put the company out of my mind.

Until yesterday. My phone rang in the middle of the afternoon, and on the other end of the line was 'Dennis' from Maybach Financial, calling to see if I'd received all the information I wanted from the Maybach site. At this point, I'm assuming this is some sort of customer satisfaction survey -- until the conversation took a turn for the extremely suspicious.

It soon became clear what was going on. After some chit chat on the companies I had signed up for information on, Dennis launched into a sales pitch for a company called American Exploration Corp., a pink-sheet listed junior resources company. I don't tend to dabble in penny stocks -- particularly not resource companies with more exploration rights than actual mining operations -- so it seemed like an odd pitch to an investor who tends to go for multinational financial and infrastructure firms. But Dennis was not to be dissuaded.

"We're really high on the company," Dennis explained. "The stock's currently trading in a range between 8 and 9 cents, but we could easily see it in the 40-cent range very soon."

Thanks for the tip, Dennis, but no thanks. 

But ol' Dennis doesn't give up without a fight.

"The thing is," (he's basically whispering at this point, just for effect,) "the company has some news coming out soon so now is definitely the time to act on this. We've been talking to their head geologist and they definitely have some huge finds that they're about to release. I'm giving you this information because I think it's the kind of investment an investor such as yourself is interested in."

The large red warning flags in my head have, by this point, been upgraded to a giant, 12-storey neon sign flashing "PUMP AND DUMP SCHEME" with the entire sign resting atop a 60-foot blimp, made out of fire. With lasers.

After politely excusing myself from the conversation, I resolve to do a little digging around on both Maybach and American Exploration, since, you know, unsolicited investment advice from anonymous sources doesn't seem to me to be the sort of thing that legitimate companies do for a living, but what do I know: I'm just some shmuck with a website.

There may well be some honest explanation for all this, but based on my initial research in Maybach, I'm having a hard time seeing what it is. I'd welcome an explanation from the company (or anyone else out there) as to what the hell that was. Has anyone out there had any dealings with this? Or something similar?

In the meantime, I'm reminded of a clicheed lesson -- when it comes to free investment advice, you often get what you pay for.

Safe to say, I don't recommend anyone signs up for any product whatsoever from Maybach. I think a call to the company's consumer relations line -- if not the SEC -- is warranted.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

New job

I normally like the nomadic nature of my dying industry, in that in provides me with a built-in opportunity to try new things and develop my skills, but I can't deny that there isn't a fair amount of nervousness to be had as one contract runs out and I don't know where and when the next one begins.

After a diligent month of letter-bombing the city with my resume and mining every contact I have that isn't nailed down, it seems I've once again managed to land on my feet, and secure another year of gainful employment. I'm particularly excited about the fact that for the first time, I'm getting away from the dead-tree medium and moving exclusively into the world of online journalism. (There's a distant, distant chance this might turn into an opportunity to blog about finance/investing and get paid for it, but that's very nebulous at this point...)

Besides the duties (which I'm quite excited about) my new job has the added bonus of coming with a not insignificant raise from what I've been earning so far -- to the tune of about 17%, before taxes. As my cousin Jacques might say, "ne pas too shabby."

I'm a big believer in the principle that good financial habits can build into big things over time, and as such, I've been able to build a decent little nest egg over the last few years, without really sacrificing too much of the fun that life has to offer. Currently, as soon as my paycheque comes in, about 25% of my gross salary goes directly into my PC Financial high interest savings account, which functions as a sort of catch-all account until I divert it into other things (RRSPs, Visa bills, big purchases, or whatever.)

It's a system that's worked quite well for me so far, so the obvious answer to the question of what to do with these new funds might be to increase the amount I divert into that account. But I have a different idea.

I think I'm going to keep my PC account as a legitimate long-term savings and investing fund, and open another high-interest savings account (or possibly just dust the cobwebs off of my fallow ING Direct account -- I haven't checked if their rates have gotten any more competitive) to be my designated "fun" account.

I think putting that psychological barrier between the accounts will be a good thing. The new account will be the one I dip into for the vacations, gifts and *cough* plasma televisions I'm thinking about getting over the next 12 months.

At any rate, big things and good news in GIV-land. 

For the time being :)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Kicking the tires -- Sherritt International (S:TSX)

What with the cash piling up in my savings account, it's about time for me to make another RRSP contribution, so I've been doing some digging, looking for a suitable stock to buy into. I'm liking what I see about resource company Sherritt International, (ticker symbol S on the TSX). I see a lot to like about the company, and some things that raise my eyebrows a little, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts here for my clever readership to see and try and get some feedback on my thought process. My apologies if you're numbers-averse.


  • It's a resource story. Sherritt's business basically divides into four units, listed here in order of size, in terms of percentage of sales -- Metals, Oil/Gas, Electricity, and Coal. Outside of a few token trusts and dividend-paying energy companies buried in my dividend ETF (CDZ on the TSX) I don't really have much of a resource presence in my portfolio -- rare for a Canadian investor. I've been underweight for a while, looking for an entry point into the space in general. I know it's impossible to time the market, but what with oil having retreated significantly from its July high of $147, I figure now' s as good a chance as any to jump in. Most commodities have seen a similar decline in value over the last several months, and nickel (66% of which goes into the production of stainless steel) is a major part of Sherritt's business. In the spirit of buying high and selling low, I figure my odds are pretty good at the moment. Whether it's the right firm inside the sector remains to be seen.
  • It's international, and diversified across several industries. With a number of operations across the country, the Toronto-based company obviously has a strong Canadian presence. But things like power plants in Cuba, offshore oil patches in Spain, gas operations in Pakistan and nickel mines in Madagascar give me a little more international exposure as Canada's economy shows signs of slipping into recession.
  • A whole bunch of the company's fundamentals look really, really good right now. Consider a few of them. Over the past five years, Sherritt has boosted its profit by an average of 36% per year. Consensus estimates expect further earnings growth in the next two fiscal years. In June, Sherritt was the only company in Canada to earn an A grade both as a value stock and a growth stock by MoneySense magazine. The company pays a dividend (albeit a small one) and it's growing. The company's book value (basically, the floor price that the company would be worth if they sold off all their assets individually) is somewhere between $12-$13, analysts say (sorry I can't link to the reports). Considering Sherritt currently trades at under $9 a share, a price/book value of about 0.75 makes me positively giddy. Of the seven analysts who cover the stock, all rate it a "buy" with target prices ranging from $15.50 to $21 -- not that I put too much faith in analysts who basically get paid to convince clients to buy stocks.
  • The Cuba 'thing'. Sherritt does more business in Cuba than many firms, and I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I like that they have the courage to go against the flow, but I have to question the wisdom of a company that basically flips the bird at the U.S., the world's largest economy, and does business in Cuba. Sherritt's had a huge presence on the island for years, and it shows no sign of pulling out any time soon. I suspect Washington's trade embargo can't go on forever, and god knows what will happen when Raul Castro dies and/or steps down. Sherritt could be better-positioned than anyone to hit the ground running on the influx of money that would result. Or not, and maybe Washington will carry a grudge. Even before Cuba opens up, who's to say they wouldn't go back to their more totalitarian tendencies and start seizing assets, Chavez-style. I have no idea, and uncertainty like that is not generally something I like in the companies I own
  • The stock has been a ski-hill downward for the last month. Normally, I don't care about things like that unless it's a stock I want to sell, but the scope is quite drastic. Since reporting a 39% dip in profit (largely due to tanking nickel prices) at the end of July, Sherritt stock has gone on to lose more than 50% of its value. A collapse like that hardly seems appropriate just because of a profit blip. What am I missing? I like buying things cheap, but am I trying to catch a falling knife?
  • Insider trading, going in the wrong direction. This one leaves a real bad taste in my mouth. According to filings, independent company director Daniel Owen owned more than 2,000,000 Sherritt shares in March, worth some $18-million. But Owen dumped more than half of his stake throughout August. And that was after the bad earnings release. Does he know something I don't? Probably...
Anyway, that's the basic picture as I see it today. Nothing imminent, but it's certainly a stock I can't seem to get out of my head. Ironically, I'd be more sold on buying the stock if Mr. Market hadn't just given it a 50% haircut. It's often hard to go against the herd.

Monday, September 01, 2008

labours of love

In honour of everyone's favourite excuse to pass out while swatting mosquitoes with an empty bottle of Moosehead Tragically Hip CD, a cornucopia of labour-themed links for you all this Labour Day.

  • But reports of the death of labour might be greatly exaggerated. Outgoing CAW president Buzz Hargrove disagrees, for one.
  • As most of the world's economy wobble close to recession, signs are trickling out of China that that country's roaring economy is even starting to slow down. The latest numbers predict single-digit growth in China's GDP this year. One of the culprits? Increasing costs for transportation, energy, raw materials and -- you guessed it -- labour. Should be interesting to see how China responds as their inherent manpower advantage is slowly eroded away over the coming years.
That's it. Unlike most of the 30% of Canadians at work today, I get paid triple time to be on the Internet today. But you? You have no excuse. Put down the iPhone, have another beer and think about fixing the lawnmower, already.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Subprime synergism

The always well-done Sunday New York Times business section offered me two great reads this week. That they're actually related to each other is even better.

First, actor and author Ben Stein offers a little perspective on the unfolding subprime mortgage crisis.

The 10-cent version? Yes, a lot of people were too eager and too greedy in conjuring qualified mortgagees out of thin air. But that's not the whole story -- "subprime mortgage" doesn't deserve to be a dirty word, since the financial vehicles allowed a large number of people to do what is, at its essence, a very good thing: buy and keep their own homes. Subprime mortgages represent about 10-15% of all U.S. mortgages, and so far, about 10-15% of subprime mortgages have gone into default. The unraveling is going to be painful, but let's not pretend that every single U.S. homeowner has suddenly stopped paying off his mortgage, Stein writes.

Not that there aren't pockets of truly astounding real estate implosions across the U.S.A. as this excellent feature on real estate in Merced, Calif. by David Streitfield shows. A suburb of San Francisco, Merced's an excellent microcosm for the worst aspect of the U.S. housing boom, and serves as a cautionary tale of what might be to come. Prices are down about 50% from their 2005 peak. This bleak quote is probably the piece's money shot:

With as many as 2.5 million homes in the United States entering foreclosure this year and, at best, sales of only 5 million existing houses, the foreclosure price is becoming the rule in many areas. In Los Angeles County, whose 10 million people make it the most populous county in the United States, a third of the sales are foreclosures.

How is this all going to play out? I have no idea. But like anything else, I think the reality will be somewhere in between the outcomes predicted by the sky-is-falling doomsayers and the "everything is fine...keep shopping" optimists.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Extreme makeover: Foreclosure edition

Not much I can really add to the story that a house built in 2005 for a down-on-their-luck family on the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has gone into foreclosure.

The four-storey mini-mansion, built for the Harper family with the help of 1,800 volunteers and residents from Lake City, Georgia, will be auctioned off to the highest bidder on August 5th. The house was used as collateral for a $450,000 loan that went into default.

Sad, really. Obviously in retrospect, it's not always the greatest idea to shower people in dire financial straights with windfalls like this because they don't always know how to handle it, but this whole story also says some particularly sad things about the worsening state of the U.S. economy in general.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thoughts on the wireless spectrum auction

Much as I'd love to believe Industry Minister Jim Prentice's claims that the recent auction of new wireless spectrum is going to revolutionize the industry in Canada by giving consumers more choice for less money, I don't.

Whether you're one of those early adopters willing to pay Rogers' exorbitant rates to get your hands on the iPhone, or just a Luddite shelling out a $7.95 "system access fee" on your no-option phone for no good reason every month, it should be painfully clear that Canadians pay more than almost anyone else in the world to use cellphones.

The CBC's handy iPhone index calculates that Canadians will pay a minimum of $2,572 over three years to use the new iPhone, under Rogers' cheapest plan. That's well over the global average, and almost three times as much as the basic plan's costs in Switzerland, for example.

I think it's great that new entrants like Quebecor, Shaw, and Yak have bought tiny slices and will presumably soon be rolling out service plans in the near future. I have especially high hopes for Yak because they run a GSM network (currently Rogers is the only one, which explains the iPhone exclusivity) and they've been a genuinely cheap alternative in conventional long distance and Internet service.

But the cynic in me finds it hard to believe that Yak, for example, is going to be particularly motivated to undercut the Big Three's prices after they've just dug themselves a $423-million hole just to get in the game in the first place. The whole thing looks like an oligopoly to me.

I'm trying to be optimistic, but we'll see how this plays out.

As for what Ottawa should do with the $4.5-billion windfall, I normally hate the knee-jerk partisan bitching that usually comes out of the opposition no matter who's in charge, but I find myself nodding in agreement with Liberal critic Scott Brison's suggestion that some of the money should be used to bring high-speed Internet to remote northern and rural communities.

Monday, July 07, 2008

BCE -- too good to be true?

I did something very unlike me this morning -- I bought a stock that I have absolutely no intention of owning for more than a little while, for no other reason than its price is too low and bound to be higher in the very near future. Crazy, I know. But there's a catch...

The stock? BCE, one of Canada's best-known, and oldest companies. Not exactly your typical candidate for a speculative flyer.

I've been sitting on the sidelines, watching the BCE drama unfold as the buyers who pledged to take the company private and the bankers who promised to loan to them bickered with bondholders and stockholders eager to make sure they get their pound of flesh.

For a while, it was looking like the whole thing was about to blow up as bankers who greenlit the sale when times were good, had second thoughts at the price they had promised to pay once times went bad and world stock markets were tumbling. The original deal was that BCE would be taken private at $42.75 a share. But due to the uncertainty and the sabre-rattling of bondholders who were leery at the amount of debt that was being taken on, the stock lagged as low as $33 not that long ago.

A few weeks ago, Canada's top court essentially approved the deal, at the original price of $42.75, and all sides appear to be appeased. Which is why I've been curious about why the stock continues to stagnate below that $42.75 level. It closed at $39.64 on Friday, roughly 8% below what Teachers & Co. have promised to buy it for.

"That's more than $3 below the agreed-upon - and now confirmed - takeover price of $42.75. That's easy money for investors who are willing to wait until December to cash out," The Globe's David Berman wrote in his marketblog on Friday.

That description sounds like me, so I picked up 100 shares of BCE this morning. Thanks to a broad-based market rout, BCE slipped even further today, and I paid $39.40 per share. That's 8.5% below what the stock's going to sell for in the fall, so I'm having a hard time seeing the downside. Sure, there's still a microscopically small chance this could all far apart, but when things have been elevated to the level where the Supreme Court of Canada is stepping in, I think that's a pretty solid foundation to build an assumption on.

I won't get any dividends as they've been suspended to help finance the deal, but in this market, 8.5% for owning a stock for 4-5 months is a gain I can live with.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Darts and laurels

When you work in the media (and by association, hang out with journalists) while also being one of those weird people who actually enjoys talking about financial topics, it makes two things more likely to happen. No. 1, the odds that your drunken ramblings might ever see the light of mainstream publication are infinitely increased. And No. 2, how they're received is likely to be all over the map...

I'm "in the news" (so to speak) a couple of times at the moment, and I figured I'd be remiss if I didn't point my loyal readers (Hi mom!) toward the fruit of my overactive brain.

My good friend Andrea is under the mistaken impression that I somehow know what I'm talking about when it comes to financial topics, so she's enlisted me to answer a few basic questions about opaque financial topics on her new financial blog, Unspending. This week, we're talking about net worth: what is it, and why does it matter. This may or may not become a recurring feature, since believe it or not, there's few things I enjoy more than chatting about things like personal finance. So if Andy's pleased with the results, expect more topics to be discussed in a rough Q&A format over there. So far, the early reviews of my thoughts appear to be positive.

But clearly, that's not a universal view. Another friend, who works at the Toronto Star, has been writing an 8-part series about the process of jumping into the real estate market for the first time. I'm something of a contrarian when it comes to real estate, as my B.S.-detector tends to go into overdrive when I'm at a cocktail party and overhear someone bragging about how "you can't lose money in real estate." At any rate, Robyn and I have been having an ongoing debate about Toronto real estate for a few weeks now, the distilled version of which, it turns out, is the focus of her series' final installment: Home, Sweet Home.

As impossible as it is to poke holes in such air-tight financial advice (from a financial advisor, no less) as "never pay off your mortgage," the point I was trying to make isn't so much that real estate is a bad investment, but more that it's quite often a good idea to at least question the conventional wisdom of the massive financial move you're making -- not to mention that 40-year mortgages might not be your best friend.

No matter. Though I'm clearly the villain of the piece, it's all in good fun. And I doubt it'll be the last time anyone takes mock umbrage with something I say.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Welcome to the jungle

A very warm pfblog welcome is in order for my good friend Andy's brand-spanking new personal finance blog, unspending. Andy's a twentysomething who's decided to face up to her financial life before it gets out of her control.

She's a self-described financial newbie, but expect well-written posts on budgeting and saving while she finds the right balance in her financial life. She's starting with the basic ABCs of finance (like we all do) but I've no doubt she'll be cranking out 3,000-word odes on ABCP, P/E ratios, EBITDA, the BRICs and ETFs before long. :)

Unspending's barely more than a weekend old, and she's already taken the fantastic first step of realizing that paying bank fees is death by a thousand cuts.

Read her. Welcome her. Add her to your blogroll.