So WTF just happened?
For many years now, I have been long Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) and a huge fan of Warren Buffett. For the past year or so, I have been short Home Capital (HCG). To see a hero of mine buy a company (likely) worth zero has blown my mind and left me in a bit of a daze.
With the fog in my brain lifting, I have been thinking of the many implications of this deal and am still left with many lingering questions. I want to share my thoughts with you. Let’s look at the deal, why I found it so shocking, what it means for HCG, where the stock should trade now, why BRK would get involved, what it means for the Canadian housing market, and some remaining questions I have.
In this deal BRK, subject to shareholder approval which I assume they get, is buying 40mil HCG shares for $400mil. With this investment, BRK will own 38.4% of HCG. Along with the equity, Buffett has replaced the HOOPP line of credit at basically the same terms, except the interest rate is now 9% rather than 10%. However this 9% is only paid on any amount borrowed. This lending facility will have a 1% standby fee for any undrawn amount. Most people don’t understand that the entire HOOPP loan will be paid down in July (as per a HCG conference call I listened to on June 22, 2017). That means that Buffett will not be paid 9% on $2bil as people are assuming - he will only be paid 1%!
Why is it so shocking?
HCG is a subprime lender. It sourced almost all of its mortgages from mortgage brokers. In the broker community, I have heard, HCG is considered to be a lender of last resort. If you don’t believe me, read this mortgage broker freaking out when HCG was not able to lend because they were running out of money. Clearly there are perverse incentives when all your mortgages are from brokers. The brokers want to close deals and bear no risk after.
So how much fraud is going on in the Canadian mortgage market anyway? In an article, a mortgage broker said he thinks 1 in 5 mortgages had some type of fraud in the application. In fact, HCG itself suspended 45 brokers after $2bil of mortgage fraud was found to have been originated by those brokers. Furthermore, the past CEO’s have been fined and suspended by the OSC for hiding these facts from investors. With such poor historical disclosure, a new board that has only been in place a month or two, and such proximity to fraud, how could anyone know what the quality of the HCG mortgage book was? With this uncertainty, and a housing bubble that appeared to be weakening, deposits started being pulled and HCG was in dire straits.
On top of all this risk, HCG had only 0.13% reserves for losses on their loans. To put that number in context, HCG had 70% less reserves than the Big 6 banks who wouldn’t finance HCG clients! Furthermore, the average US bank has loan loss reserves of 1 to 2%, and most US subprime lenders have loss reserves of ~9%.
The thought that Warren Buffett would step in to help a questionable underwriter, with no real clarity on how bad its mortgage book may be and with no reserves, in the face of a housing bubble, to me, was ludicrous.
Consider this quote about insurance from the 2004 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter:
“In insurance, the urge to keep writing business is also intensified because the consequences of foolishly-priced policies may not become apparent for some time. If an insurer is optimistic in its reserving, reported earnings will be overstated, and years may pass before true loss costs are revealed.”
Change insurance to banking and the quote still holds. Buffett must know these reserves are too low. He also has experience buying Irish banks before the crash, when he lost more than 90% of his investment. So what the fuck is going on here???
What does this mean for HCG?
This deal immediately takes bankruptcy off the table for HCG. At the pace at which GICs were leaving it seemed to me that HCG had only a few months of cash left. This deal combined with the sale of $1.2bil of CRE assets announced on June 20th means that this liquidity concern is eliminated. It also means that HCG will not have to sell any more assets to fund themselves.
With the excess capital HCG can now continue to offer mortgages.
Where should HCG stock be trading?
Trying to figure out what HCG’s book value is here is tricky. There are losses from the HOOPP loan, shareholder lawsuits, losses from the MCAP deal (I think), selling commercial real estate below par, and now a cash infusion from BRK. My guesstimate of book value is ~$17.86 (after both BRK stock tranches close). With elevated funding costs, I still don’t think that HCG can earn a 10% ROE on its assets (I see a 7% ROE, assuming reserves stay unbelievably low and housing doesn’t crash). In my opinion, a 7% ROE means a bank should trade around 70% of book or $12.50 in this case. But there will be a Buffett premium of say 20%, so I think the stock should trade in the $12.5 to $15 range. However, there is still a large short base and the borrow is incredibly expensive, so this stock could trade much higher in the near term.
HCG still only has loan loss reserves of 0.13% and it is a subprime bank. If reserves were just 3%, still low for a subprime bank, it would wipe ~$4.50 off my guesstimate of $17.86 book value.
Why did Buffett do this deal?
I am still struggling to figure this out. BRK is a $411bil market cap company that earns roughly $20bil per year. Right now BRK has a total of $100bil sitting in cash. So an investment in HCG is so tiny for them it begs the question - why? Sure, they bought stock at a discount (not large enough in my opinion), but it is a high profile, controversial investment, that doesn’t seem to offer enough upside for Buffett to risk his reputation.
I can offer some speculative thoughts:
- This deal bought Buffett a favour from the government for upcoming infrastructure investments. He meet with PM Trudeau and Finance Minister Morneau just before this deal.
- Buffett sees a Canadian house crash coming. By taking a 38% stake in a tiny bank that he can keep capitalized through a crash, this gives him a vehicle to buy some of the larger banks if/when they run into trouble. Say housing is down 50% in Canada (which is how much I think housing drops); my personal view is that CIBC is in big trouble in that scenario. BRK, through HGC, can buy CIBC. That would be a meaningful investment, and it breaks BRK into the profitable Canadian banking oligopoly. By owning 40% of HCG, perhaps Buffett can get around any foreign ownership restrictions when looking to buy some or all of a Big 6 bank.
I am leaning towards the second option at the moment. Otherwise, I think this investment, given the large risk, makes no sense. The due diligence BRK claims to have done was not entirely inspiring either, if you believe this Globe and Mail article. A final thought on this matter: where was Charlie Munger on this deal? I find it hard to believe he would have approved.
What this means for the Canadian housing Market?
It felt to me that the housing market was beginning to crack. As I have said, a housing bubble needs delusion and cheap credit. Delusion seems to be waning and credit was constricting with HCG unable to lend. Other alternative lenders were having trouble funding as well, further restricting credit. Will this change now that HCG is getting back into the market? It may. Certainly we could see HCG injecting some liquidity back into the market. However, with new management running HCG and Berkshire’s involvement, it is hard to see them going back to their poor underwriting ways.
The Canadian housing bubble has been resilient, so perhaps a deal of this nature does prolong the inevitable crash. I am not sure.
Other lingering questions
How does this deal affect the funding of other alternative lenders? If you are a retail investor looking to purchase a GIC, do you buy an Equitable Trust (EQB) or Canadian Western Bank (CWB) or HCG GIC? Now that Buffett is on board, I would think you buy a HCG GIC. As a result, will funding rates increase for HCG’s competitors?
How does this deal affect the Big 6 Canadian banks? Are they now more open to competition if foreign entities can step into the market?
If housing was to drop 50%, HCG would likely need a lot more capital. Is Buffett willing to put in more?
The biggest and most important question is: did Canada beg for a bailout much too soon? Think about a scenario where housing is down a lot and the Big 6 banks are hurting. Who is coming in to help them if Buffett lost all his money on his HCG investment? My view is that HCG reserves will prove to be comically low, and with reserves for the bigger Canadian banks being not that much better, no one is going to trust the Canadian banks accounting anymore. If people see that Buffett was fooled, will they want to step in? I don’t think so. So when Canada most needs to have Buffett on the phone he won’t be there, and trust in our banks will have been impaired. Has the shittiest lender been bailed out when we may need a much bigger bailout in the future? I think so.
Please let me know what your thoughts are. This is a very complicated situation and any opinions are welcomed.
Disclosures: long BRK, short HCG, short EQB, short CWB, short CM