Category Archives: Finance and Investments

Getting Yahoo! Finance data into Excel

Here’s a little VBA snippet that allows to retrieve Yahoo! Finance data into an Excel spreadsheet.


=yfQuote(ticker, date, field), where

  • ticker (required) is ticker symbol used by Yahoo! Finance. Examples: MSFT, ^GSPC, VXX.
  • date (optional) is the date for which quotes are sought. If omitted, the most recent available historical quote is retrieved. Example: DATE(2014, 10, 11).
  • field (optional) is the data field requested. If omitted, close price is returned. Allowed values: 1 (open price), 2 (high price), 3 (low price), 4 (сlose price), 5 (volume), and 6 (adjusted close price).
Public Function yfQuote(strTicker As String, _
    Optional dtDate As Variant, _
    Optional intField As Variant)

    ' dtDate is optional. If omitted, use today. 
    ' If value is not a date, throw an error.

    If IsMissing(dtDate) Then
        dtDate = Date
        If Not (IsDate(dtDate)) Then
            yfQuote = CVErr(xlErrNum)
        End If
    End If
    ' intField is optional. 
    ' If omitted, use 4 to retrieve closing price.

    If IsMissing(intField) Then
        intField = 4
        If Not (IsNumeric(intField)) _
               Or (intField > 6) _ 
               Or (intField < 0) Then
            yfQuote = CVErr(xlErrNum)
        End If
    End If
    Dim dtStartDate As Date
    Dim strURL As String 
    Dim strCSV As String 
    Dim strRows() As String 
    Dim strColumns() As String
    Dim dblResult As Double
    dtStartDate = dtDate - 7
    ' Compose the request URL with start date and end date

    strURL = "" & _ 
      strTicker & _
      "&a=" & Month(dtStartDate) - 1 & _
      "&b=" & Day(dtStartDate) & _
      "&c=" & Year(dtStartDate) & _
      "&d=" & Month(dtDate) - 1 & _
      "&e=" & Day(dtDate) & _
      "&f=" & Year(dtDate) & _
    Set objHTTP = CreateObject("MSXML2.XMLHTTP")
    objHTTP.Open "GET", strURL, False
    strCSV = objHTTP.responseText
    ' The most recent price information is in the second row; 
    ' the first row is the table headings.
    ' Order of fields:
    ' 0 -- Date
    ' 1 -- Open
    ' 2 -- High
    ' 3 -- Low
    ' 4 -- Close
    ' 5 -- Volume
    ' 6 -- Adj Close

    ' split the CSV into rows
    strRows() = Split(strCSV, Chr(10)) 

    ' split the most recent row into columns
    strColumns = Split(strRows(1), ",") 

    dblResult = strColumns(intField)
    yfQuote = dblResult
    Set objHTTP = Nothing

End Function


  1. Yahoo! Finance doesn’t allow retrieval of historical prices for currencies, so this function wouldn’t work with currency tickers such as USDEUR=X.
  2. With some additional fiddling, the function could be persuaded to accept 0 to return the date for which quotes are retrieved. This could be useful when retrieving the most recent quote. As is, this wouldn’t work because of dblResult = strColumns(intField) (double value is expected, but a string is returned; there would have to be a conversion of that string into a date value)…

Private equity + foreclosure = 8%

Private Equity’s Foreclosures for Rentals Net 8%

By Edward Robinson – Mar 13, 2012
Bloomberg Markets Magazine

Ken Major climbs the steps of a county courthouse in a San Francisco suburb with $500,000 in cashier’s checks in one hand and a list of addresses in the other. Major is a buyer for Waypoint Real Estate Group LLC, an Oakland-based investment firm that’s scooping up foreclosed homes in California.

On this December afternoon, he joins a dozen house flippers as an auctioneer starts hawking the latest batch of defaulted properties to hit the market. Major bids on a three-bedroom house in Antioch, and after other buyers counter, he wins at $147,600.
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Institutional Investor on high-frequency trading

From Institutional Investor:

Inside the Machine: A Journey into the World of High-Frequency Trading

10 Jun 2010
Michael Peltz

An editor’s journey into the world of high-speed trading and proprietary algorithms that make or break markets.

At 2:45p.m. on Thursday, May 6, George (Gus) Sauter received a frantic call from one of his traders to get in front of a Bloomberg terminal. The Dow Jones industrial average, already down 3.9 percent that day on fears about Greece, was in free fall. In just five minutes the index plunged 573 points. Less than two minutes later, the Dow had rocketed back up 543 points, going on to finish the day down 3.2 percent.

“It was just crazy,” Sauter, chief investment officer of mutual fund giant Vanguard Group, told me a few days later. “I had to go to our fixed-income building, about a five-minute walk from my office. By the time I got there, the market had rallied.”

Crazy, indeed. The aptly named “flash crash” temporarily wiped out more than a half trillion dollars in equity value, shaking what little faith nervous investors had in U.S. markets. Shares of Dow component Procter & Gamble Co., the ultimate defensive blue-chip stock, dropped more than one third in a matter of minutes before recovering almost as quickly, all for no apparent reason. A few other large U.S. companies, including accounting firm Accenture, saw their stocks trade as low as a penny a share, only to close not far from where they had begun the day (nearly $42 a share in the case of Accenture) — again, on no news. By the time the dust settled, a whopping 19.3 billion shares had changed hands, more than twice the average daily U.S. equity market volume this year and the second-biggest trading day ever.

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Smart Grid in China

From Institutional Investor:

Investors Want to Plug Into China’s Smart-Grid Market

01 Apr 2010
Xiang Ji

Beijing’s massive conversion to a smart power grid could just one-up the rest of the world. Savvy entrepreneurs and investors are looking to get a piece of the green action.

When Beijing announced a $585 billion stimulus package in November 2008, Jeffrey Kang spotted an opportunity. The package’s vast investment mandates included one aimed at upgrading the country’s electricity distribution system to a smart grid that would use high-tech meters to precisely match supply with demand in households and offices. The energy savings would be an obvious boon for the planet — but savvy entrepreneurs and investors like Kang also wanted a piece of the green action.

China Electricity Council, a national power industry association, estimates that total spending on the smart grid will hit $40 billion by 2011, although the entire project likely won’t be completed until 2020. An estimated 300 million old electricity meters are to be replaced by smart meters that encourage lower energy use by displaying usage prominently. The meters can also track household energy patterns and adjust distribution accordingly.

The whole smart-grid system — comprising ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines, sensors and smart meters, all connected through computer networks — enhances energy efficiency not only by matching supply and demand, but also by more efficiently managing intermittent renewable energy sources.

Entrepreneurs and investors see great prospects in the conversion to a smart grid. Kang, who is CEO of Nasdaq-listed, Shenzhen-based module supplier Cogo Group, signed a deal in April 2009 to acquire China’s Mega Smart Group, a supplier of parts for smart-meter makers. Kang estimates the deal will generate $20 million in sales in the first year, or about 7 percent of Cogo’s total revenue. And that’s only the start. “Smart meters will be a key driver in our growth going forward,” says Kang. Just last month Yale University said it had invested in Redwood City, California’s Silver Spring Networks, a smart-meter manufacturer planning an IPO in 2010.

SBI Energy, a Rockville, Maryland–based market research firm, forecasts that the smart-grid market will grow from $90 billion in 2009 to $171 billion in 2014. SBI says government and corporate mandates to convert to climate-friendly energy systems will drive the boom.

Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, a Menlo Park, California–based venture capital firm, predicts that the world’s electricity grid will eventually be set up “so that smart transformers are feeding information to smart way stations and talking to smart meters.” VC firms’ interest in smart grids emerged only recently, with investments as of last year totaling $414 million. By contrast, solar power has attracted $1.2 billion of VC funds, according to consulting firm Cleantech Group.

London-based VC firm WHEB Ventures not long ago made a capital injection of an undisclosed sum in PassivSystems, a Berkshire, U.K., company that makes energy management systems that fit into smart grids. “Though it’s still in early stages, smart grid represents a potentially vast global market,” says Megan Bingham-Walker, an associate at WHEB Ventures, which manages £114 million ($170.2 million). President Barack Obama last October granted $3.4 billion in stimulus money to develop smart-grid technology and install upgraded meters in the U.S.; utilities are to match these funds. Europe, meanwhile, has mandated that 20 percent of its energy must come from renewable sources by 2020.

Still, investors looking to plug directly into the smart-grid market may find it difficult to do so. For instance, Robert Metcalfe, a partner at Polaris Venture Partners, a $3 billion, Waltham, Massachusetts–based private equity firm, has been screening energy-management software developers but has yet to write a check. “One of the challenges is that there is no standard to root for, making it hard to recognize the winner,” he laments.

Caymans sign another TIEA

From International Tax Review:

Cayman Islands agrees to tax information exchange with Netherlands

The Cayman Islands signed a tax information exchange agreement (TIEA) with the Netherlands on July 8. This brings the number of TIEAs signed by the Cayman Islands to 11, one short of the OECD’s requirement of 12 required to be recognised as being compliant with international requirements.

McKeeva Bush, the Cayman Islands’ new leader of government business and minister for financial services, has signed tax treaties with the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands since his election on May 20.

Bush’s government is in the advanced stages of negotiation with several countries, including Italy, Mexico, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Canada.

There has been some indication that the OECD may look at the quality of the agreements rather than just the number in determining whether countries are removed from the grey list of those that have signed up to information exchange standards but have not implemented them.

“I realise there are some concerns being aired regarding the possibility of the OECD moving the goal post so to speak or that the stated number of 12 agreements may be changed. However based on the discussions I have had with OECD officials, this is highly unlikely,” said Bush.

Corporate bonds boom in China

From Business Week:

In China, a Burst of Corporate Bonds

Thanks to streamlined regulations, more companies are issuing debt cheaply and fast
By Frederik Balfour

Hong Kong – Here’s a little-known fact: Chinese companies now issue more corporate debt than their counterparts in Japan, making the yuan-denominated bond market the world’s No. 3, after those for dollars and euros. In the first five months of 2009, mainland companies sold $82 billion worth of debt, vs. $51 billion for the Japanese. “The growth in issuance has been phenomenal,” says Liao Qiang, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s (MHP) in Beijing.

Bond sales in China started to come to life when the mainland’s equity markets headed south in late 2007. As sellers parked their stock proceeds in deposit accounts, banks found themselves flush with money they couldn’t lend because of government limits on loans. To give banks somewhere to put their excess liquidity, regulators in April 2008 streamlined rules on bonds.

Before the changes, corporate bonds had to be listed on the stock exchange. That required approval by exchange regulators, which was costly, time-consuming, and subject to political whims. So most issues were enterprise bonds—money raised by state-owned companies to finance big infrastructure projects such as the Three Gorges Dam or new railways. These all had state guarantees and offered identical yields.

The new rules make things simpler. While all issues require a credit rating, they no longer need to be traded on the exchange. The market got an added jolt last September when Beijing halted new domestic stock offerings as Shanghai shares tumbled. That forced companies to look elsewhere for capital. And with interest rates down worldwide, bonds have become yet more appealing. In the first five months of 2009, corporate bonds accounted for 22% of all debt issued in China, including government debt, vs. 3% in 2007.

Corporate bonds will be crucial to Beijing’s efforts to make the yuan a global currency. For that to happen, the mainland’s capital markets need to be far more sophisticated and better integrated into the international financial system than they are today. “The government is pushing to make financial markets more broad-based and mature, and without debt you cannot say that is complete,” says Frank Gong, chief China economist at JPMorgan Chase (JPM).

More than 100 companies have issued bonds. The largest offering to date came in May when Agricultural Bank of China raised $7.3 billion, priced to yield 3.3% for five years, vs. 2.4% on government bonds. Billions more are in the pipeline, including issues by International Commerce Bank of China, Bank of Communications, and Bank of China.

But for cash-starved private companies the market is still hard to penetrate. The minimum flotation is $141 million, and issuers must have a AAA or AA+ rating from one of the five domestic or joint-venture ratings agencies that have been licensed. That precludes all but a handful of private companies from participating, so more than 80% of bond issuers are state-linked companies. And because most purchasers of corporate debt hold it until maturity, bond trading after issuance is “still quite thin,” says Frances Cheung, fixed income strategist with Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong.

The bond market could get a further boost once Beijing opens up the market in “panda bonds”—yuan-denominated issues by foreigners. So far, the International Finance Corp. and Asian Development Bank are the only organizations that have issued panda bonds, although HSBC (HBC) and Bank of East Asia have been approved to sell them in Hong Kong. And later this year locally incorporated subsidiaries of foreign companies may be allowed to issue panda bonds on the mainland. Among the first will likely be London-based Standard Chartered, which aims to raise some $500 million to shore up its mainland balance sheet. Although stocks are climbing and IPOs are set to resume, “we’ll still see strong demand” for bonds, says Chris Zhou, director of debt capital markets at UBS Securities in Beijing. “The bond market is a relatively easy and cost effective way to get money.”

B of A recaps at market

From Institutional Investor:

At the Market Deal for Bank of America

03 Jun 2009
Steve Rosenbush

BofA issues stock to withstand market volatility.

Raising $33.9 billion in capital is no mean feat for a bank, especially given the violent mood swings that have gripped the financial markets of late. Nonetheless, such were the marching orders that the Federal Reserve Board handed Bank of America on May 7, when the Fed announced the results of its stress test of 19 U.S. lenders. The financial giant sprang into action the very next day, announcing that it would reduce a big part of the capital deficiencies identified in the stress test by issuing $13.46 billion in equity.

The issue took an unconventional form. Instead of executing the deal in one fell swoop, as companies commonly do, BofA parceled out the shares over the next eight trading sessions. This piecemeal approach, pioneered more than 15 years ago by utilities and real estate investment trusts, which recapitalize frequently, is known as an at-the-market offering, or “dribble out.” The bank’s ATM was the largest in history.

BofA had determined that the structure made sense, given the volatile nature of the market. Its own shares — whipsawed, like those of many big banks, by investor fears over the health of the industry — had plunged 93.6 percent, from a 52-week high of $39.50 on September 19 to a low of $2.53 on February 20, before recovering somewhat. “In a volatile market, the ATM structure is beneficial because it allows you to sell shares when you like the price and leave the market when you don’t,” explains Lisa Carnoy, global co-head of equity capital markets at BofA, which was book runner on its own deal. “It was a perfect approach for us. We were able to minimize dilution and maximize flexibility.”

Demand for the shares was strong, according to Carnoy. In an ATM, the sale of a fixed amount of equity can be stretched out over a month or more, but the company decided to complete the sale on the eighth day, in a so-called cleanup trade. The shares, which had rallied in anticipation of the offering, closed at $14.17 on May 8, dipped to an issue low of $10.67 on May 15 and finished the offering on May 19 at $11.25. The bank sold 1.25 billion shares at an average price of $10.77.

“In this environment, the ATM is a flexible way to raise money. However, with the capital markets open, it made sense to get the equity offerings behind them,” says Jason Polun, a large-cap-bank analyst at T. Rowe Price, a major holder of BofA shares. Polun has a favorable view of the company. And many apparently agree. Hundreds of institutional investors, including pension funds and mutual funds, lined up to participate in the offering. “We could have kept selling, but we just decided to get it done,” Carnoy says.

An ATM structure helps maximize price, minimize dilution and maintain flexibility with respect to size and timing of a deal. In BofA’s case, timing mattered because it had to coordinate the issue with other components of its capital raising plan, including asset sales and conversion of preferred shares. By June 25 the effort was all but complete.

The case for the ATM was bolstered by the disappointing performance of more-traditional offerings, says Carnoy, citing secondary placements this year that have priced as much as 15 percent below where they launched. Morgan Stanley issued $4.5 billion worth of stock in a follow-on offering on May 8 at $24 a share, an 11.57 percent discount, according to research firm Dealogic. And on May 12, bank BB&T offered $1.75 billion worth of shares priced at $20, which Dealogic pegs at an 11.11 percent discount. By May 28, BB&T shares had gained 5.95 percent and Morgan Stanley was up 19.21 percent, according to Dealogic. “If the market happens to be down on the day that you initiate a secondary offering, you are simply out of luck,” Carnoy says. BB&T says it was pleased with the demand for the issue.

BofA’s success with its ATM has already inspired one bank to follow its lead. Fifth Third Bancorp announced on May 20 that it would issue as much as $750 million worth of stock and sell the shares “from time to time” using the structure. It has hired BofA and Morgan Stanley as co–book runners on the deal.

Public sector pension plan problems

From Institutional Investor:

The Big Public Pension Squeeze

10 Jun 2009
Steven Brull

U.S. public sector pensions are facing massive budget shortfalls.

Vallejo, a working-class community of 120,000 northeast of San Francisco, has long been a strong union town. Like many cities, it gives its workers generous retirement benefits: Police and firefighters can retire as young as age 50 with a pension equal to 90 percent of their final salary, and they enjoy free health care for life. Salaries, which serve as the base for determining pension levels, have also been generous: Forty-four percent of the city’s 613 employees had gross wages in excess of $100,000 in 2008.

Financing such largesse isn’t easy in the best of times. But in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, such salaries and benefits are becoming unsustainable. So facing an $8 million budget deficit and nearly $200 million in unfunded pension and health care liabilities, Vallejo filed for bankruptcy in May 2008, making it the largest governmental body to go bust since Orange County did so in 1994. In March a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that the city could tear up existing contracts as part of its reorganization, a landmark verdict that paves the way for cuts in once-sacrosanct public sector salaries and retirement benefits.

Earlier this year the city reached a deal with police to cut salaries by 18 percent through June 2010 and cap medical benefits; the agreement also imposes a 6 percent pay cut on managerial employees and requires new hires to contribute 20 percent of the cost of their medical insurance. City negotiators are playing hardball with other unions that have yet to settle; they rejected a firefighters’ proposal to take a 6.5 percent pay cut, forego previously agreed-to pay raises of 13 percent and cap health care benefits.

As goes Vallejo, so may go the nation. The cost of public sector pensions is set to soar in coming years because the recent meltdown in the financial markets has worsened the health of systems that were already badly underfunded. Municipal and state governments across the country are struggling with massive budget shortfalls, leaving them in no position to fill the pension gap. As a result, public workers look likely to bear the burden through cutbacks in their salaries and benefits and increases in their pension contributions.

“No one can isolate themselves from the effects of the economy,” Gray Davis, the former governor of California and currently counsel at Los Angeles law firm Loeb & Loeb, told Institutional Investor in a recent interview.

Pension benefits enjoy constitutional or statutory protections in many jurisdictions, and reducing them may not be easy or straightforward. But analysts say governments can use a variety of means — freezing or cutting salaries, requiring higher pension contributions, delaying retirements and reducing retiree health care benefits, among others — to yield immediate budget savings and dramatically reduce pension costs in the long run.

“The majority of the pain will ultimately be borne by people who will see their pensions cut,” says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, who studies pension issues at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Change is already under way in a number of states. Under an agreement reached in April, public employees in New Mexico will kick in an extra 1.5 percent of their salaries next year to pay for pensions and contribute more to the cost of their health benefits. In February, California adopted changes that will require most of the 114,000 employees of the University of California to begin paying 2 percent of their salaries to fund pension benefits, with the contribution rate rising by 1 point a year until it reaches 5 percent in 2013. It will be the employees’ first contribution in 20 years to what had been an overfunded pension plan. Connecticut’s state workers made wage and other concessions in May that will save the government about $700 million through mid-2011.

California, which faces a $24 billion projected shortfall over the next year, has already begun slashing salaries. In February, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger began furloughing the state workforce two days a month, which effectively reduces pay by more than 9 percent. Now he wants the legislature to cut salaries by a further 5 percent and fire 5,000 workers, about 2.5 percent of the total. The state’s largest public employees’ union, the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, is proposing to give up previously negotiated pay hikes of 4.6 percent for 17 months in exchange for having only one furlough day a month, but the legislature has twice voted down the suggestion.

Imposing cuts on existing workers isn’t easy, given the strength of public sector unions in many parts of the country. Many governments have therefore been reducing salaries and benefits for new employees. Kentucky last year adopted changes that will allow public employees to retire as early as age 57 if they have worked for at least 30 years; previously, they could retire at any age after 27 years of service. New York Governor David Paterson has proposed setting a minimum retirement age of 50 and requiring workers to put in at least 25 years of service, up from 20 currently. He also wants to limit annual cost-of-living adjustments to 1.5 percent and require new hires to contribute 1 percent of their salary for retiree health benefits. And several states, including Florida, Illinois and Oklahoma, have begun to replace traditional defined benefit pensions with defined contribution accounts for new hires.

Union leaders believe that defined benefit systems are a shared responsibility and that workers are willing to fairly share the cost of maintaining adequate funding. “In a critical situation when budgets need to be balanced, to the extent we need to contribute something — particularly to preserve traditional defined benefit plans — you’ll find that our members are realistic about the situation,” asserts Richard Ferlauto, director of corporate governance and pension investment for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest public employees’ union, with 1.6 million members. But Ferlauto and others are adamant that workers shouldn’t bear the full burden of fixing the pension problem. They contend that some of the most severe budgetary and pension shortfalls, in states such as California, Illinois and New Jersey, reflect inadequate tax revenue and a failure by government to make necessary contributions. “Our state income tax is only 3 percent. It should go up,” says Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association. Late last month state lawmakers rejected a proposal by Governor Patrick Quinn to raise the tax rate to 4.5 percent.

The scale of the public sector pension problem is making reform increasingly urgent. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, state and local pension plans have seen their portfolios plummet since October 2007 as a result of the stock market collapse — assets are down $1.2 trillion from what the total would have been if the market had produced the 8 percent annualized returns that most actuarial calculations assumed. These plans now have some $2.3 trillion in assets and $3.6 trillion in liabilities. To achieve full funding over a typical 30-year amortization period, the plans would have to increase aggregate contributions by a total of $205 billion from 2010 to 2013. By contrast, actual contributions to the plans amounted to $107 billion in the year ended June 30, 2007.

The full force of last year’s market collapse won’t be felt until 2014. That’s because pension plans typically smooth their asset values, which actuaries rely on to determine contribution rates, over five years. So the cost of amortizing last year’s market losses would require an extra $102 billion a year in contributions from 2014 to 2039.

The growing cost of providing pensions has been borne almost entirely by employers in recent years. From 2002 to 2006, for instance, public employees who also have Social Security paid an average of 5 percent of their salaries in pension contributions. Employers, meanwhile, saw their contributions rise from an average 6 percent of payroll in 2002 to 8.5 percent in 2006, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. Girard Miller, a benefits consultant with PFM Group, reckons that employer costs would have to rise to 12 percent of payroll by 2012 to keep up with obligations. “Unless there’s a dramatic rally in the stock market, we could see a doubling of employer costs from 2002 to 2012,” he says. “That’s unsustainable. There will have to be a rebalancing. We’ll clearly see a paring of benefits for new employees, layoffs, and in some cases the only way will be to gouge younger workers to pay benefits to older employees.”

The situation in some localities is particularly dire. The Cincinnati Retirement System’s annual contributions for pensions and health care for city employees could jump from 86 percent of payroll this year to 132 percent in 2013 to put the system on track to achieve full funding, Cavanaugh Macdonald Consulting of Kennesaw, Georgia, told the system’s board last month. San Jose, California, projects that its pension contributions for police and firefighters will jump from 23 percent of payroll this year to as much as 58 percent in fiscal 2011 and 70 percent in 2013 to close a funding gap. In Detroit contribution rates for police and fire pension plans are projected to double, to 50 percent of salary, over the next three years. Most of these governments lack the resources to make such increases and are likely to boost contributions by less than their actuaries recommend, which would only exacerbate the funding shortfall.

State budgets are also squeezed. Sixteen states have enacted tax increases this year and 17 more are considering them, according to a May report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. At the same time, at least 36 states have cut funding for public services, including education and assistance for low-income residents. Notwithstanding these measures and an influx of some $140 billion in federal stimulus funds into their coffers, states face a combined budget gap of more than $350 billion over the next two years. “The stimulus program has given the states the wherewithal to weather the worst of this,” Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, who also is chairman of the National Governors Association, tells II in a recent interview. “Where the rubber will hit the road for states is when the stimulus drops off. If the economy hasn’t recovered by then, it’ll be a tough situation.”

There are practical limits to raising more revenue. Many states, including California and New Jersey, have laws that limit property tax increases. Nor can cities and states do much about slumping sales and income taxes. “Municipalities will face a challenge in revenue collection,” notes Mike Ross, a municipal credit strategist at Memphis-based investment firm Morgan Keenan & Co. “Unemployment is rising. Corporations have tax-loss carryforwards. Consumers are tightening up, hurting sales tax revenues.” Then there are politics to consider. Taxpayers, their retirement savings ravaged and their job security threatened, are in no mood to reach deeper to support public workers with benefits far better than their own. “Politicians who raise taxes will be voted out of office,” asserts Davis. He should know. In 2003, following a spike in energy costs and an increase in California’s vehicle registration tax, he became only the second governor in U.S. history to be recalled.

Cutting budgets to finance public sector salaries and benefits is not likely to be any more popular, particularly as the biggest source of potential cuts is education.

Hence public employees are likely to face the biggest squeeze. Although the basic pension benefits formula — how the number of years an employee works and his or her final salary translate into a monthly annuity — can’t be changed for active workers in most jurisdictions, governments can carve out important savings from other compensation elements. Freezing or lowering salaries, eliminating cost-of-living adjustments and requiring workers to contribute more for pensions and retiree health care benefits can produce immediate budget savings and yield major reductions in long-term obligations. Marcia Fritz, vice president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a group dedicated to reigning in pension costs, says encouraging workers to stay on the job longer would produce some of the biggest budget benefits. The cost of providing benefits is cut in half if an employee works an extra five years, she says, thanks to added employee contributions and reduced benefits payments.

Some public pension fund officials urge patience, arguing that the markets and the economy will improve in time, averting the need for major changes in benefits and contributions. “Required increases will be forestalled by a couple of years, and the hope is that markets and fiscal conditions will recover by then,” says Keith Brainard, research director for NASRA.

The idea that public funds can earn their way back to health seems unlikely, though, especially as many funds are looking to invest less aggressively than they have in the past. Many funds ran short of cash last year and had to sell stocks at depressed levels to finance benefits and meet capital calls from private equity and real estate funds. Going forward, more funds are likely to put a premium on liquid assets, including cash, even though they pay lower returns. The board of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System was due to approve plans this month to allocate 2 percent of its $185 billion portfolio to cash. The Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System and the South Carolina Retirement Systems are decreasing risk by reducing exposure to equity futures in their portable-alpha strategies. Liquidity concerns will only grow as a spike in baby boomer retirements makes a growing number of public funds cash-flow-negative.

Imposing cutbacks on workers’ pay and benefits may be the obvious solution to the funding crisis, but it won’t be easy, given the clout of public sector unions. In May, for instance, teachers in Illinois forced Governor Quinn to withdraw a proposal to increase their pension contributions by 2 percent of salary, to 11 percent. “We made a full-scale effort, with thousands and thousands of calls and e-mails and hundreds of members meeting with legislators,” says the Illinois Education Association’s Swanson. Other politicians, daunted by the size of the pension problem, have sought to defer action, a step that may only exacerbate the chronic underfunding of some systems. In New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine in March won passage of a bill that will allow cities to defer half their pension contributions from this year until 2012; in May he slashed the state’s pension contributions by $150 million, notwithstanding the fact that the system’s $60.5 billion in assets represents just under half of its liabilities. Philadelphia’s pension fund used actuarial sleight of hand to save $172 million in pension contributions, lengthening the period for smoothing asset values from five years to ten and stretching the amortization period for paying off the unfunded liability from 20 years to 40.

It’s a tactic that Rendell says he’d like to see emulated by struggling pension systems across the state. “It doesn’t help them in the long run, but it certainly helps them get by over the next couple of years,” he tells II. “Without it, I don’t know if municipalities can survive.”

To critics, delaying contributions is a step in the wrong direction, and cutting future benefits — as drastic a measure as it might be politically — doesn’t come close to what’s necessary financially.

Indeed, Kirkegaard believes that the funding situation is far graver than official estimates, which are based on the assumption that assets will grow by 8 percent a year, with liabilities discounted by 8 percent annually. “In general, public accounting for pension and health retirement benefits uses constructs that might be regarded as economic fictions,” notes Orin Kramer, chairman of the New Jersey State Investment Council. “We use discount rates for which people in the corporate world would go to jail.”

Plug in more realistic numbers, financial economists say, and unfunded obligations explode. Valuing liabilities at the risk-free U.S. Treasury rate of less than 4 percent, reckon Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the amount of pension promises made by states will more than double, to approximately $7.9 trillion, in 15 years. Unfunded liabilities of state pensions are north of $3.1 trillion, they estimate.

Kent Smetters, an associate professor of insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, whose estimates of Social Security funding as a deputy assistant secretary of economic policy in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department earned him a reputation as “Dr. Doom and Gloom,” expects states and cities to begin lobbying for a federal bailout of pension obligations by the end of this year. “They’re going to have to start reaching out for dollars, and as the midterms approach there will be political pressure for this to happen,” he predicts. Smetters expects that a federal pension bailout could reach $1 trillion — or more than the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Congress approved earlier this year.

Some states have already begun appealing to Washington. California is lobbying federal officials to backstop at least $13 billion in short-term municipal notes this summer. In November the mayors of Atlanta, Philadelphia and Phoenix appealed — unsuccessfully — to the U.S. Treasury to be allowed to use a portion of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to provide loans to cover unfunded pension liabilities.

In April, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford won approval from President Barack Obama’s administration to channel some of the state’s $2.8 billion in federal stimulus money toward closing the $27 billion unfunded liability of the South Carolina Retirement Systems.

A large-scale federal bailout of state pension funds, though, appears highly unlikely. Aside from mounting worries over the federal deficit, there’s the fact that some states have succeeded in funding their pensions and won’t want to see Washington bail out others. “It wouldn’t be responsible just to shovel money to California and not the other states,” notes Davis.

In past decades public employees have used their considerable political clout to boost wages and benefits. Now the pendulum has begun a long swing in the opposite direction.

Bonds for Microsoft

From Business Week:

Bonds for Microsoft

Cash is king these days—so much so that even debt haters are willing to take out loans to get more of it. On May 12, Microsoft sold bonds for the first time in its cash-rich history, adding $3.75 billion to its already impressive stash of $25 billion. Rumors of potential acquisition targets soon followed—not just Yahoo! (YHOO) but also business software rival SAP (SAP). So far, CEO Steve Ballmer is denying he’s got any mega-deals in the works.

Funny as it is, I’ve been assigning my students a problem involving bond issuance by Microsoft since 2002 or so…

A dispatch from Turkey

From Institutional Investor:

Turkey’s Military Pension Fund Reaps Windfall

Jonathan Kandell
08 Jan 2009

Despite tensions between Turkey’s generals and the moderate Islamic government, OYAK, the military pension fund, has made the most of the country’s pro-business policies.

For emerging-markets economies, it’s a sign of maturity to develop truly world-class enterprises. Mexico can boast of cement producer Cemex, Brazil of aircraft maker Embraer, South Korea of electronics giant Samsung or automaker Hyundai.

In Turkey arguably the best claim to such lofty status belongs not to an industrial company but to a pension fund – and the military’s at that. Ordu Yardimla¸sma Kurumu, or OYAK, as it is known, operates like a private equity fund rather than a portfolio investor, is more profitable than any of Turkey’s family-run conglomerates and enjoys a higher credit rating than the government. The man responsible for that success, Co¸skun Ulusoy, is a military history buff who approaches the art of the deal like a general preparing for battle. Since taking over as CEO in 2000, his investing acumen has helped OYAK deliver a sixfold increase in retirement benefits to the country’s military brass – and earned him a reputation as Turkey’s Warren Buffett. He describes his strategy bluntly: “We buy companies, manage them, turn them around and sell them for big profits.”

After a run of stellar returns, however, Ulusoy today finds his 22.41 billion Turkish lira ($14.4 billion) fund threatened on two fronts. Rising political tensions between Turkey’s military and the moderate Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose pro-business policies have contributed to OYAK’s stunning success, are threatening to undermine the country’s economic gains. At the same time, a deepening global recession is thrashing stock markets around the world, slowing capital inflows into Turkey and provoking a sharp slide in the lira. The sudden deterioration in the investment climate threatens to dent the pension fund’s returns and stall Ulusoy’s plans to expand internationally.

Notwithstanding those challenges, OYAK’s bold commander remains remarkably upbeat about the outlook. The pension fund has amassed an acquisition war chest of $3.2 billion, thanks to astutely timed divestments of some of its banking and insurance holdings in the past 18 months – at virtually the peak of the market. Although he put his shopping plans on hold late in 2008 because of the global market turmoil, Ulusoy hopes to find attractive assets at even cheaper prices in the upcoming year.

“We have plenty of cash on hand for future investments,” the blunt, 58-year-old executive tells Institutional Investor in an interview at OYAK’s spartan offices overlooking the Bosporus in central Istanbul. He says potential targets include construction, energy and mining projects in Europe and North America. “We definitely want to go abroad, and this is the time to diversify,” he says. “We can’t keep all our investments in Turkey for risk reasons.”

Those risks have ratcheted up sharply in recent months. Weakening global demand has taken a huge bite out of Turkey’s exports. In the third quarter of 2008, GDP expanded by an anemic 0.5 percent compared with the same period in 2007 – the slowest rate since 2002. Yarkin Cebeci, an Istanbul-based economist for JPMorgan Chase & Co., predicts growth will slow to 2.5 percent in 2009 from 3.5 percent in 2008. The lira plunged by 26 percent against the dollar in October alone and was trading just below 66 U.S. cents in late December, down 24 percent for the year. The Istanbul Stock Exchange’s 100 index was off nearly 53 percent since the beginning of the year. And according to Cebeci, foreign direct investment into Turkey will likely have fallen to less than $15 billion by year-end 2008 from $22 billion a year earlier.

With the global credit crisis reducing inflows of foreign loans and investments upon which Turkey has depended for its high economic growth, the government has been forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for the fourth time in ten years. Negotiations were under way in December for an IMF loan that could reach $40 billion. (The Turkish government hopes to announce a deal in January when an IMF delegation is scheduled to visit the country.)

Still, given the tough environment, Ulusoy plans to go ahead with his international expansion plans, says OYAK chief investment officer Caner Öner. He acknowledges that OYAK companies are vulnerable to the sliding stock market, and “returns may be affected as a result of decreasing dividends,” but notes that the $3.2 billion the pension fund has set aside for acquisitions is distributed between lira, dollars and euros – and is mostly liquid.

As markets and growth projections have tumbled, political friction has mounted between Turkey’s secular establishment, which enjoys strong backing from the military, and Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP. The government earlier this year passed a law to allow women to wear headscarves at Turkish universities. Opponents promptly challenged the move in the constitutional court, arguing that the change violated the secular traditions established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923.

The court overturned the headscarf law in June, but one month later it narrowly rejected a request by the country’s top prosecutor to ban the AKP, which would have provoked a political crisis and forced early elections. The court decided instead to cut state funding to the party in half. The ruling sparked a brief rally in Turkish markets, but tensions between the military and the government flared anew in October when 86 people, including several retired generals, went on trial on charges of carrying out assassinations and bomb attacks in a bid to sow chaos and provoke a coup to overthrow the government. The case is not expected to end for at least several months.

The infighting between the military and the government is no small irony – retired army officers, after all, have benefited economically as much as anyone in Turkish society from the Erdogan government. The AKP took power in 2001 when the country was struggling to recover from a severe economic crisis that had forced it into the arms of the IMF. Erdogan’s government implemented IMF-endorsed reforms that slashed inflation to single digits, fostered robust growth of 6 percent a year and attracted unprecedented inflows of foreign investment.

OYAK took advantage of that turnaround to generate average annual returns of 47 percent from 2000 to 2007, compared with an average annual rise of 14 percent on the Istanbul stock market during the period. The fund generated net income of TL3.2 billion in 2007 alone, up 54.2 percent from a year earlier. Ulusoy, a former banker whose father was a military doctor, likes to point out that OYAK’s 2007 profits easily outdistanced those of the Koç Group (TL2.29 billion) and Sabanci Holding (TL969.5 million), two giant Turkish business conglomerates.

OYAK has steered clear of politics, preferring instead to focus on performance. The fund avoids investments in defense-related activities, pays taxes like any other business and is not subsidized by the government. At the end of 2007, OYAK had 235,818 members, of whom 36,390 were retirees. Besides a lump sum for retirement – a brigadier general who put in 30 years of service received TL270,910 in 2008 – members can buy homes at a price just above construction cost and take out personal loans from the pension fund’s credit union.

OYAK’s stellar performance has won it a reputation of near-infallibility among Istanbul’s financial elite. “They are Turkey’s only real institutional investor,” says Mehmet Sami, an executive board member at ATA Invest, an Istanbul-based brokerage, who has sometimes found himself on the losing side of business battles with the pension fund. In 2005 he advised Luxembourg-based Arcelor (acquired by India’s Mittal Steel the following year) as it competed with OYAK to acquire steelmaker Erdemir. “Their cash flows and returns are fantastic, more like a successful private equity fund than a pension fund.”

OYAK’s private equity strategy was born of necessity. The fund was founded in 1961, one year after a military coup brought to power a government that sought to ingratiate itself with the electorate by broadening social security coverage to include blue-collar civil servants and creating independent, private pension funds for groups such as the military and the police. Only OYAK, with its unique approach to investing, survived. When it began collecting 10 percent of its members’ monthly base salaries, it soon faced the problem of what to do with the capital – it was the 1960s, and there were no money-market accounts or local stock exchange listings. It appeared that OYAK’s only investment option was to put the money into savings accounts, but individuals could do that on their own.

Instead OYAK opted to buy companies and use their dividends to finance its members’ pensions. That led to a private equity approach to investment decades before it was popularized in the U.S. and Europe. “Because there was no effective corporate governance in Turkey – no transparency or clear accounting rules – the only way to know that you were doing the right thing with members’ money was to acquire enough of a stake in a company to join management and see how well it was being run,” explains Ulusoy.

OYAK took majority stakes in domestic companies that operated in iron and steel products, cement and concrete, food processing and distribution and financial services and also formed a few joint ventures. In 1969 it picked up a 49 percent stake in an automobile venture with France’s Renault Group, which owns the remaining 51 percent. The company now dominates Turkey’s car market and has become a major exporter to the European Union. In 1994 giant French insurer AXA acquired 11 percent of OYAK Insurance Co. for $9 million and over time upped its stake to 50 percent. In February 2008, OYAK sold its half of the firm to AXA for €355 million ($525 million). In 2004, OYAK took a 24 percent share in a partnership with Germany’s Evonik Industries that operates a coal-fired power plant, Isken, that produces 7 percent of Turkey’s electricity. It has since upped its stake to 49 percent.

Ulusoy received a doctorate in economics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1980, then returned to Istanbul, where he held positions at Citibank, Morgan Grenfell & Co. and Turkey’s Halk Bank. From 1988 to 1994 he was CEO of the largest state-owned lender, T.C. Ziraat Bankasi, and from 1994 to 2000 headed Koç Consumer Finance Co.

A few months after he became CEO of OYAK in June 2000, a banking crisis gripped the Turkish economy, causing the lira to tumble and interest rates to soar. Ulusoy responded by suspending acquisitions and slowing down credit union lending to the pension fund’s members. He also converted OYAK’s cash holdings from lira into dollars. It was unusual, to say the least, for the military’s pension fund to bet against the country’s currency, but the move paid off spectacularly when the lira plunged by 52 percent against the dollar in 2001 alone. “The economy remained troubled through 2000 and 2001, but because all our liquidity was in dollars, we made a lot of money.”

Besides his banker’s résumé, Ulusoy boasted longtime personal ties to the armed forces. He grew up an army brat, moving around the country as his father, an ophthalmic surgeon in the armed forces, was posted from base to base. Though Ulusoy served only briefly – completing Turkey’s required 18 months of military service as a naval officer – he has lectured on military strategy and history, subjects on which he is a passionate aficionado. He splices business explanations with quotes from warfare philosophers like Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. On OYAK’s need to grab a bigger share of Turkish steel production, he says, “There’s a war going on; just look at what’s happened with world steel prices, and everybody is trying to capture steelworks.”

On a more pragmatic level, Ulusoy developed ties with military officers when he was CEO of Ziraat, which handled much of the armed forces’ payroll accounts and personal loans. He contends that familiarity with the military gave him the necessary backbone to demand more independence than any of his predecessors at OYAK had. When the pension fund’s board offered him the job, he agreed to accept only if it stayed out of management decisions. “I told them it’s like the signs in the Greyhound buses in the U.S. that warn passengers: ‘Stay behind the line and don’t talk to the driver,'” says Ulusoy.

He brought a few colleagues with him: Öner, OYAK’s CIO, and Aydin Müderrisoglu, vice president for new business development. Like their boss, both have doctorates, Öner in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, and Müderrisoglu in business administration from Pennsylvania State University. Müderrisoglu was vice president for strategic planning for the Koç Group while Ulusoy was there, and Öner worked under Ulusoy at Ziraat Bankasi as executive vice president.

The trio’s arrival shook OYAK to the core. The pension fund had always operated as a secretive enterprise that never showed its books to anyone. Shortly after assuming control, Ulusoy announced that the pension fund would begin publishing annual reports. With his new leadership team, he also decided to adopt international financial reporting standards at OYAK and at all 60 companies in which it had investments. And he implemented a hiring ceiling that has kept the pension fund’s total of employees at 200 since 2000.

OYAK’s board members endorsed the changes because Turkey’s economic crisis threatened to undermine the pension fund, which had seen its net income drop 19.7 percent, from $431.6 million in 1999 to $346 million in 2000. A year later, thanks largely to Ulusoy’s currency speculation, net income rose to $476.7 million.

But the Ulusoy team continued to raise eyebrows. Particularly controversial was a decision to raise outside financing for future acquisitions. “Some board members screamed that OYAK never borrowed, that it was outrageous to take loans we didn’t need,” says Ulusoy. But he went ahead and took out two syndicated loans in 2004 to raise $240 million. The money was used to purchase OYAK’s initial stake in the Isken power plant.

The new transparency and financial track record quickly paid off with credit ratings from both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service in 2005, the first ever granted to a Turkish nonbank company. Today, OYAK’s ratings of BB from S&P and Ba2 from Moody’s are higher than the Turkish government’s BB- and Ba3 ratings. “OYAK invests in low-risk targets that provide long-term, stable, recurrent dividends,” says Stuart Clements, a London-based credit analyst for Standard & Poor’s. The pension fund set its sights on the large state companies that the government was putting on the auction block in 2005, in particular, the biggest state-owned steel group, Eregli Demir ve C,elik, or Erdemir. It’s the country’s only producer of integrated flat steel used in automobiles and domestic appliances, and it also produces long steel, used in lower-value products for construction and infrastructure projects. With steel prices rising worldwide, spurred on by demand in China and India, OYAK’s executives were convinced they could not afford to let Erdemir slip away. Before the auction, the steelmaker had a market value of $3.3 billion. Ulusoy’s $2.96 billion bid for less than half the shares – which valued the group at $6 billion – far exceeded the government’s most optimistic expectations. But Erdemir’s market value rose to a high of $8.5 billion in June 2008, and OYAK purchased enough additional shares to give it slightly over 50 percent ownership. (As a result of the global economic meltdown, Erdemir’s market cap had plunged to $3.52 billion by mid-November). The pension fund used nearly $500 million of its own money and borrowed the remaining $2.5 billion to finance its $2.96 billion outlay. OYAK reported $110 million in cost savings at Erdemir in 2006 and another $50 million in 2007. In the first half of 2008, net profits were TL854.8 million, a 118 percent increase over the first half of 2007.

The pension fund’s most profitable deal to date was the $2.67 billion sale of OYAK Bank in June 2007 to ING Group, the Dutch banking and insurance company. When Ulusoy took over as chief executive in 2000, OYAK had a small, debt-ridden bank with 11 branches and a single ATM that didn’t work. Rather than cut its losses, the pension fund decided to increase its banking footprint. “We pursued a traditional military strategy and went on the attack,” says Ulusoy. In 2001, OYAK bought state-owned Sümerbank, a money-losing conglomerate of six small banks, with 135 branches and 230 ATMs, for $36,000 and a commitment not to sell Sümer for at least five years. Sümer and OYAK’s small bank were merged, given a $700 million capital boost and renamed OYAK Bank.

By 2006, OYAK Bank was offering corporate, small business and retail banking services through a countrywide network that had grown to 349 branches and 1,094 ATMs. It boasted 10,000 small and medium enterprises and 1.2 million consumers as clients. The bank ranked sixth among private sector banks, with TL12.5 billion in assets in 2007; net profits increased 29 percent that year, to TL135 million.

But OYAK Bank faced stiffening competition from larger foreign rivals including Citi, the Dutch-Belgian Fortis Group and France’s BNP Paribas. “How were we going to compete with the big boys?” asks Ulusoy. “We knew it would be a lot more costly for us to borrow than for them.” He found a willing buyer in ING, which was concerned it was losing out in the foreign scramble for Turkish banking assets. “The multiples were ratcheting ever higher, and there were a dwindling number of banks that fit our needs,” says John McCarthy, chairman of ING’s Turkish subsidiary. ING paid 3.26 times book value for OYAK Bank, and Ulusoy was exultant. “To get back almost $2.7 billion on a $36,000 investment in six years – now that’s what I call a good private equity story.”

The pension fund has also sold its holdings in retail operations in recent years, including a supermarket chain and a tire company. The asset sales have given OYAK its $3.2 billion stash for acquisitions. The domestic energy sector is emerging as one likely target area. According to the National Energy Forum of Turkey, the country will require $125 billion in new energy investments by 2020.

But Ulusoy saves his real enthusiasm for investment plans abroad. He and his team are poring over targets in Europe and North America, including bridge, energy and mining projects.

Credit rating agencies endorse the idea. “If OYAK had more investments based in countries with a higher credit rating, then its financial profile would probably merit a higher rating,” says S&P’s Clements.

The global financial crisis and Turkey’s political tensions continue to dampen growth prospects, but Ulusoy remains optimistic. After all, he points out, the country was undergoing a far worse crisis when he arrived at OYAK. “If we survived that, we will survive anything that comes out of this situation.”