The Business Press Maven guesses it's appropriate that we've been treated to a creature feature in the lead-up to Halloween. I only wish it wasn't one we hadn't seen so many times before.
As a long, I would not touch
stock for all the candy in suburbia. And I also would not dare to be short the stock at this point. Stocks are categorized by Wall Street analysts and business journalists as "buys" or "sells," but in many circumstances (like Countrywide and housing in general) investors would be better served by a "just don't even think about it and stay totally clear" rating.
But I digress.
On Friday, Countrywide reported a $1.2 billion loss. It was more than estimated, which made sense. Estimates have been comically unreliable in housing, where one final writedown has replaced another and assurances that a market turn was around the corner have been as prevalent as "For Sale" signs.
Countrywide's embattled, stock-dumping CEO, the nation's subprime deity, has been in the lead when it comes to promised recoveries and unreliable statements. If you have a moment, just read up -- though do not do so on an empty stomach.
Mozilo was saying everything was OK as he was dumping stock, but Countrywide itself was buying. Then he threw out the idea of a coming Great Depression, in order to bully interest rates down. Now he apparently thinks that Great Depression, predicted at the end of August, is over and done with by Halloween.
In sum, if there is one CEO whose word should be treated by the business media with a jaundiced eye, it is the supernaturally tan Mozilo.
So what happened on Friday?
When reporting earnings, Mozilo made a brand new wave of assurances and promises. The third-quarter -- you mean the one with $1.2 billion in losses? The very same -- was the "earnings trough," he said with assurance. August was the worst there would ever be and "the extraordinary market conditions" and "unprecedented disruptions" were a thing of the past. Moreover, "significant" profitability was coming in the fourth quarter. And 2008? Happy days again -- a full-year profit.
And look at much of what followed. Check out this headline, for example, and remind yourself, it is a headline from
The Financial Times
, a respected news outlet, not Countrywide's less respected and certainly less independent media relations department:
Countrywide on path back to profit," trusted
The Financial Times
, for its dutiful part,
led with a convoy of quotes from Mozilo, without setting them immediately against his long track record of false recovery quotes. The first quote by a third party is an analyst who says in blind support, "they took their medicine decisively," referring to the writedowns.
Now, as readers know, I have been negative about housing for the past couple of years and remain so over the long haul. The favorable demographic trend of baby boomers buying homes was a big, largely undiscussed factor in the strength of housing in the past quarter century (taking a near silent back seat to the interest rate story). With baby boomers starting to downsize, supply will hang over the market for the next generation, and if housing does much better than inflation over that period, you can knock me over with a feather. But, in the short run, have we seen the last of bad loan write-offs in housing?
I don't believe so but, in the final estimation, I have no idea. This is pretty uncharted territory, which is why I recommend a tack taken by many smart professional investors -- just stay clear. Should Mozilo be taken at his word that the fourth quarter will be OK? Definitely not. But can he be so dumb and reckless, while being sniffed by the
Securities and Exchange Commission
to make yet another round of outrageous claims? You wouldn't think so, but I wouldn't risk it. If I were short, I'd cover faster than you could say "foreclosure."
Again, the path to follow is the one blazed by many of the smartest professional investors -- look at Warren Buffett in technology -- when they don't get something, they just make the decision to avoid it.
There is enough out there that is easier to make sense of.
Meanwhile, as housing lurches about, remember that the business media always want nothing more than a shift in market sentiment. They are generally not interested in political bias, with apologies to a lot of you who bray to me about it. Nor, with their meager salaries, are they trading on their work. But the business media is often predisposed to want a new story line to write, and you have to keep this in mind. A new story line makes work more exciting and -- importantly -- gives you a chance at more material.
That's why the business media is often declaring false shifts in markets and why The Business Press Maven consistently goes postal when, say, the business media, after two flukishly decent existing-home sales numbers, declares an end to housing worries at the end of 2006. Make sure to check out this classic
Wall Street Journal
headline that was like a raspberry seed in my teeth: "
Home Sales Bode Well for Big Picture: Second Consecutive Rise Points to Limited Market Fallout From Market Slump in 2007."
Oh well. Headlines are easy come, easy go, as they say. But you have to be more careful and savvy with your money.
Part of what justified the overwrought trust in Mozilo on Friday was the movement of the company's stock, in that it went way up. But in a
article, in which he weighed in with an appropriately skeptical note with a headline "
Skepticism Scarce in Countrywide's Rally," Randall W. Forsyth referred brilliantly in his lead to "a touching display of faith-based investing" and, unlike many others who implied that traders trusted Mozilo's latest claims wrote: "More likely, the recovery in all of Countrywide's securities Friday reflected a monster short-covering rally."
Randall Forsyth, The Business Press Maven genuflects in your general direction.
While Mozilo promises, and much of the business media believe, just remember that what is probably going on is that some good pros have, at this point, just been frightened far, far away.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.