Seth Klarman

The Time Charles Schwab Asked for a Loan

Published on:
September 8, 2018
Last Update:
September 3, 2019

When certain stocks are in high demand, Charles Schwabborrows shares from customers and lends them to other clients. On Monday of this week the brokerage firm wrote to me a request: they would like to borrow the shares I bought in Orchid Paper Company.

What really got my attention was the rate of interest Mr. Schwab offered: an annual interest rate of 52.5% - A shockingly and unreasonably high interest rate. I had to call their customer service number to find out more.

Working out of Phoenix, Arizona, a friendly customer representative who identified himself as Joe, explained that the hefty interest rate was simply due to demand. There was a high volume of institutional clients who wanted to short the stock.

The loan terms were straightforward: Mr. Schwab, a.k.a. the borrower, may repay the loan at any time; I, a.k.a. the lender, may sell the stock at any time; and the interest rate of 52.5% translated to an expected $437 per month [1].

The shorts rationale

The short sellers are betting that the company will soon file for bankruptcy [2]. Management had recently announced that a major customer who represented 23% of the 2017 annual sales, had terminated the relationship. And that Orchid Paper's lenders are now demanding the company to be sold to a competitor (and to return the $210 million in outstanding liabilities.)

There was also the variable debt issue. In 2016 Orchid's cost of debt was 2%; it went up to 7% in 2017 and as of the second quarter of this year, the company was paying a whopping 9% interest rate.

The long rationale

There are potential buyers in my opinion. In the second quarter earnings call with analysts, Jeff Schoen, boss of Orchid, referred to comparable transactions of paper mills acquisitions over the past three years. They showed buyers who paid roughly $4,500 per ton of paper.

Since I mentioned Jeff Schoen, it is worthwhile to note his interest in the company had increasingly grown since he became its boss. His cost basis is in the double digits and while I cannot argue that an increased ownership stake is a sign of a promising future, it surely is better than if Schoen had been selling his common shares.

In short, Schoen and I are long the company while the market is short. And there is enough interest out there that short sellers are willing to pay an interest rate of 52.5% to prove Schoen and I wrong.

One great invention: the stock market  

"The market exists because of differences of opinion among investors, " wrote Seth Klarman in Margin of Safety. "If securities could be valued precisely, there would be many fewer differences of opinion, prices would fluctuate less frequently and trading activity would diminish.”

Rarely do you find in real life a difference of opinion in value as in the stock market. Imagine walking to your local coffee shop, expecting to pay two dollars for a large cup of coffee. Further imagine that next you a bystander says that coffee is way-over-priced and that he intends to wait until the price of coffee cools off (no pun intended.)

And as you leave the coffee shop, a white bearded gentleman approaches you and offers to pay you an interest rate of 52.5% to borrow the cup of coffee you just bought.  

But this the peculiar way in which the stock market acts. The market allows stocks to fluctuate in price because of reasons that reason does not understand. The stock market is an arena where opinions of belief rule over economic reality.  


Orchid investors, yours truly being one of them, saw the price of their shares drop to nill in early 2019. Let us this be a lesson that indeed, sometimes, the shorts see what the longs ignore.

[1] 4,000 shares @ $2.50 times 0.525 divided by 12 months.
[2] Indeed Orchid Paper filed for bankruptcy in April 1, 2019.

There are plenty of myths on Wall Street

Published on:
August 24, 2018
Last Update:

1. Risk and Return

Common convention is that to earn a reasonable return in the stock market you need to take risk. This belief results in investors purchasing stocks that operate industries they know little of; hoping that this assumption of the relationship between risk and return will prevail as a given law.

Wall Street prefers to see risk as the relationship of a stock price to
the overall price of the stock market. Known as beta, the idea goes as follows: if a certain stock goes up in price while the overall stock market increases then Beta is positive. If the price of the stock declines as the price of the overall stock market increases then Beta is negative.

With this naive definition of risk in mind, your stock advisor may suggest that if the price of the overall stock market is going up, then you will be better off purchasing high beta stocks.

But risk should be defined as a level of uncertainty. And the more uncertain you are about what you invest in, the more risk that you take. For example it is risky to marry someone that you know little about. And so to successfully achieve a reasonable return in the stock market, you should be aware of what you do not know.

Risk is dependent on uncertainty. Not unlike the choice to whom you marry.

A suggestion: One of the ways to become knowledgeable about a publicly-traded company is to read its public filings. Visit the investor relations section of their website to read more about the company’s strategy, competition and past operating results.

2. Relative Versus Absolute Comparison

Value in the stock market is measured both by relative and by absolute comparison. An example of a relative valuation is to compare the current price of a stock with the overall price of the stock market. An absolute valuation is when a stock investor buys a stock only if the current earnings multiple is no greater than 10 times the prior year's earnings.

Today the discussion around the purchase of a stock only evolves around relative valuation. How did Samsung perform when compared to Apple. And whether Apple's earnings this year were higher compared to last year. 

Yet the weakness to relative valuation is that there is no maximum price that an investor will pay for a stock. The second concern is that a constant comparison to others promotes short term thinking. One day you feel great because the quoted price of a stock is up. On other days you feel glum because the quoted price is lower. Mood swings do not promote rationale thinking.

A suggestion: Delete from your phone any applications that track on a daily basis the price of your stocks.

3. Money Managers

The story why you would want someone else to manage your money goes like this: You are busy; with so much to do and so little time. And since stock investing requires knowledge, expertise, technical skills and evidently time, you are to trust a mutual fund manager to do the work for you.

But your interest and your manager's interest are not always aligned. Most managers strive to augment the size of their assets they manage. This is because the greater the size of the mutual fund the greater the management fees. But the more capital a mutual fund has, the more the likely it is that its performance will be penalized. Warren Buffet commented on this phenomenon. In his words: 

Our equity capital is more than twenty times what it was only ten years ago. And an iron law of business is what it growth eventually dampens exceptional economics. Just look at the records of high-return companies once they have amassed even $1 billion of equity capital. None that I know of has managed subsequently, over a ten-year period, to keep on earning 20% or more on equity while reinvesting all or substantially all of its earnings.

A suggestion: Refrain from investing in mutual funds where managers have little of their own money invested in the fund. And avoid any manager that charges a management fee higher than 1.0%. You will be better off with a passive investing strategy such as purchasing an exchange traded fund.

4. Speculation Versus Investment

"Investments throw off cash flow for the benefit of the owners," wrote Seth Klarman. "Speculations do not. The return to the owners of speculations depends exclusively on the vagaries of the resale market."

What Klarman suggested is that there are two types of assets: an investment and a speculation. An investment is an asset that yields cash flow (think rental income generated from renting a condo). And speculation is simply any other asset that does not meet the definition. Accordingly, Bitcoin and gold are speculative assets. This implies that when you save for retirement, or for the education of your children, you must buy investments - and not speculate.

Investment is an asset that yields cash flow; Any asset that does not meet this definition is speculative.

A suggestion: How and whether a business generates cash flow should be the first question you ask prior to buying the stock. 

5. The Nature of the Brokerage Business

Just as you would be skeptical of an advice about how to gamble given by a poker table dealer, you should refrain from taking advice from
financial brokers.

The nature of these financial intermediaries is that they are hungry to earn commissions. Read: most brokers prefer a frantic, stock trading behavior than a lethargic one. 

In addition the broker does not know you. Each investor has a specific time horizon, tax situation, risk and return objectives and unique financial circumstances that must be considered prior to making an investing decision. 

A recently-wed couple for example, who would like to purchase their first home in nine months, has a different time line than an individual who would like to invest in the stock market and is not planning to use the funds prior to retirement.   

A suggestion: Stop listening to advice about the investments from people that don't know you.