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INDIA BULLS ARE GORING US, FOR NOW

Position: We are short the Indian equity market via IFN

The past weeks have been full of mixed blessing for the Indian economy: Tata’s triumphant launch of the Nano, an emblem of India’s ambitions and potential, was marred somewhat by capacity constraints that will prevent production sufficient to meet anticipated full demand until 2011, a full year later than hoped. After weather worries, the wheat harvest is now projected to be a record haul lifting concerns about consumer price pressure, but with collapsing wholesale prices the prospect of cheaper wheat provided little comfort to the more than 50% of the population that toil as small farm operators.

February export data released by the ministry of commerce today leaves little room for positive interpretation however, as collapsing global demand reverberates through the subcontinent’s manufacturing sector. Exports declined by 22% on a year-over-year basis in February as total exports fell at a greater rate of 23% narrowing the trade deficit to $4.9 billion for the month.  Excluding oil (for which India is import dependant) imports declined by 10% Y/Y.

INDIA BULLS ARE GORING US, FOR NOW - table


Since we launched our macro product early last year we have been consistently bearish on Indian equities. The divergence between our view and the India bulls has largely centered on our more negative bias on the potential for internal demand to sustain at high-single-digit growth levels. The glass half full community sees India as the major Asian economy with the least dependence on external demand while we see a massive mismatch between the vaunted drivers of the “Indian Miracle” –high tech services and intellectual property firms, and the reality of the great majority of India’s population that cannot possibly replace foreign demand for call centers and software.  Meanwhile viable products like the Nano, the model T of India poised to meet massive internal demand, have been hindered by bad governmental policies and a dependence of foreign capital (recall that Tata was forced to walk away from a nearly complete factory to produce the Nano after a regional government failed to satisfy the disgruntled farmers whose land had been appropriated for the site, setting the project back by months at massive expense).

Prime Minister Singh is in London today for the G20, and as both the leader of a rising global economic force and a talented economist his ideas will weigh heavily in the talks. At home however, with election starting before month end, the Prime Minister is scrambling to implement more stimulus measures  -rate cuts, tax cuts and infrastructure programs, which may satisfy voters even if the defense it will provide to economic growth is unclear. In the case of infrastructure projects, it is important to note that the ponderous overlapping bureaucracies of India’s state and federal governments will prevent ground from being broken for months or even years on most projects. Wholesale price levels released later this week may well register negative, but consumer inflation data has still not reflected the decline in commodity prices. In the face of all this, the any optimistic rhetoric by the ruling coalition going into the election needs to be discounted.

We are short the Indian equity market via IFN and continue to have a bearish bias despite the fact that the position has been a drag on our portfolio performance over the past month as the market rallied from January lows; the sting is softened by the long string of double and high single digit returns that we have realized shorting IFN over the past year.

Andrew Barber
Director

INDIA BULLS ARE GORING US, FOR NOW - image001


CKR – WILL CARL’S JR. HOLD THE LINE ON VALUE?

Just last week, CKR management stated that Carl’s Jr.’s fiscal 2010 period 2 same-store sales would be down mid single digits as a result of a difficult comparison and continued discounting by its competitors. Today, we learned that Carl’s Jr.’s comparable sales trends were actually worse than management’s guidance as they declined 7% in period 2 (which I recognize as more of a high single digit decline). Despite this worse than expected result in period 2, Carl’s Jr.’s 2-year average trends did improve sequentially from period 1, but remained negative. Again, management blamed the concept’s weakness on “headwinds we faced from the ongoing deep discounting of low-quality menu items by our competitors, which negatively impacted sales at both our brands.”

CKR – WILL CARL’S JR. HOLD THE LINE ON VALUE? - CKR CJ FY10 period 2

Management stated in its press release that it is “working diligently to get Carl’s Jr. back on the positive same store sales track” and then goes on to say that “keeping with our strategy of offering our guests a casual-dining quality burger at a fast-food price, Carl’s Jr. debuted the Kentucky Bourbon Burger on Mar. 11.” This new burger is being offered as one of the company’s Six Dollar Burgers. Management recognizes that it is its premium strategy focus that is hurting sales at Carl’s Jr. in this current environment, and yet, it seems to think that keeping with the strategy will work to return Carl’s Jr. to positive same-store sales growth.

The company has proven that it is more difficult to hold the line on value as sales declines worsen because Carl’s Jr. returned its Jumbo Chili Dogs to the menu, which sell 2 for $3. But, again, in keeping with its more premium-focused strategy, management stated on its earnings call last week that it would not use media support for its lower priced items, including the 1/8 lb. burgers it expects to return to the menu.

Same-store sales at Hardee’s grew 3.1% in period 2 versus the concept’s easiest comparison from FY09. Ironically enough, the company said the comparable sales strength “validates the success of our premium product strategy.” So the premium strategy is helping Hardee’s and hurting Carl’s Jr.?

I understand the motivation for not wanting to discount. It hurts margins and could put the company’s brand positioning at risk, particularly once the economic environment improves. Holding the line on value in the near-term, however, is going to continue to put pressure on Carl’s Jr.’s sales performance relative to its competitors. As I have said before (please refer to my March 26 post titled “Is Market Share Shifting?”), I think that given the current casual dining discounts, the big market share shifts to QSR from casual dining are likely over. With casual dining restaurants offering more competitive value options, it will become increasingly more difficult for QSR players to win market share with premium-priced menu items. I think this is made clear by Carl’s Jr.’s declining same-store sales trends.

The issues at Carl’s Jr. have been magnified by today’s more challenging environment. Looking at the concept’s same-store transaction growth trends (please see chart below), 2-year average trends have been negative for some time now, highlighting the fact that trying to sell higher-priced menu items in a difficult economy is not the only problem facing Carl’s Jr.

CKR – WILL CARL’S JR. HOLD THE LINE ON VALUE? - CKR CJ Same store transaction


DELAYING THE INEVITABLE INCREASE IN RATES

Official Japanese unemployment for February released yesterday registered at 4.4%, the highest level in 3 years. After increasing rounds of layoffs and plunging sentiment survey levels in recent weeks it came as little surprise when cabinet office wage data -also released on Tuesday, showed a decline of 2.7% Y/Y for Feb and household spending declined by 3.5% Y/Y for the same period. This fall-off in wages and spending underscores the complete dependence of the second largest economy on earth on external demand for a recovery and supports our thesis that the only driver for the equity markets in the near term remains the Yen’s relative strength or weakness.  

The most eye popping data point of the week so far is the revised OECD estimates of debt to GDP for next year, which rose to a whopping 197.3%. With a balance sheet that leveraged, the question I keep asking myself is –how long can yields remain so low?  After years of stagnation when rates remained at rock bottom has investor complacency become so entrenched that the 2 year will continue to hold below 0.5% despite increasingly heavy debt levels supported by an increasing weakened economy?  Surely at some point something has to give.

We are short the Japanese equity market via EWJ, and will opportunistically seek opportunities to trade other parts of the capital structure there as prices and data change.

Andrew Barber
Director

DELAYING THE INEVITABLE INCREASE IN RATES - image001


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Performance Rules

"Let your performance do the thinking. "
-H. Jackson Brown

So there you have it - no matter where you are this morning, there your performance for March and Q1 of 2009 is. I have been getting some very exciting feedback from some of our clients already, and I'd like to congratulate all of you for differentiating yourselves. In the face of adversity, that's what winners do.

In The New Reality of Transparency and Accountability, marked-to-market performance will rule. While I doubt that the Nigerian government will be able to find a way to mark their stock market's YTD performance to "model", you can bet your Madoff that plenty of America's once vaunted private equity and "side pocket" fund superstars will do their best to have the US government sponsor that kind of accounting for them.

At down -37%, Nigeria was the worst performing stock market in the world in Q1. If my research team was able to properly "mark" the toxic liabilities (no, they aren't "assets") of some of the levered long investments we saw private equity make in 2007-2008, the performance of those funds anchored to those prices might be down more than Africa's biggest loser. Don't bother asking our fellow Yalie, Steve Schwarzman, about those Blackstone "marks" - the SEC already did - Stevie isn't into the transparency thing... yet...

I went through the math in yesterday's Early Look, so we all know how impressively China (and what China NEEDS) performed in Q1. But how about the things that the Chinese no longer need? Does China really need the wizardry of US Financial Services execs? Well, the scorecard for Q1 says US Financials (XLF) were down -30%. How about Technology? Sure, with the S&P Tech Sector (XLK) +1.4%, maybe they'll take a little more of that!

It's always fascinating to listen to populist politicians and underperforming corporate executives toe the line of excuse making, particularly when you overlay the rhetoric born out of their own incompetency with quantified performance results. While the SP500 being down -11.7% for 2009 to-date is by no means good, the major US index that isn't geared to what China doesn't need (US Financial Services), the Nasdaq, is only down -3.1% for the YTD. The Nasdaq was up +10.9% for the month of March! Great Depression??

Of course, unless you are going away without it bailing you out, government intervention scares the hell out of people - as it should. How else can we explain why the US weekly reading on consumer confidence this morning (ABC/Washington Post poll) remains mired at down -49? Well, America has voted... and Tim Geithner is not their American Idol?

Since our firm is dedicated to no banking, brokerage, or asset management, I don't manage other people's money anymore. Otherwise, I don't see how you can look The Client in the eye and tell them that your research isn't compromised, conflicted, or constrained. If you want the other side of that argument, I can get you the phone numbers of plenty of sell side shops who, for whatever reason, still believe you'll buy into the narrative fallacy associated with their horse and buggy whip Investment Banking Inc. structures.

The New Reality is that whether her name is China or Tiger Woods, The Client whose cash you are managing is the boss again - and we all must work together to prove that Americans are going to start doing the right thing with The Client's money when no one is looking.

While I'm not a big shot billionaire, I used to play "hedgie" with some of them - and I still like to keep score. For the month of March, my performance can be measured in two ways: 1. The Research Edge Asset Allocation Portfolio (only ETFs) and/or 2. Client performance allocated to every move I make in our virtual stock picking portfolio @ www.researchedgellc.com <http://www.researchedgellc.com> .

Following a +0.12% absolute positive return in February, the RE Asset Allocation Portfolio was +3.4% in March. Having a big position in Cash works both ways (you can beat the market in down tapes by a lot, and not get all of the juice in up moves). One client had our virtual stock picking portfolio up almost +10% for March on a gross basis. The difference between the two of these strategies is obviously the alpha my team generates on the stock picking side. Altogether, I'm very proud to be wearing the jersey that bears their name.

Where to next for the US stock market? I think we need to go lower before we go higher. Yesterday, those who had a great month on the long side tried their darndest to get that SP500 above my 803 line of resistance, but failed on the close. My immediate term downside support for the SP500 now moves to 764, which is -4% from the March 31st close.

After selling down exposure to US Equities to 6% into yesterday's last gasp of trading strength, I have hunkered the Asset Allocation Portfolio back down to a 70% position in Cash. With the US Dollar breaking out above what I see as the Shark Line at $84.95 on the USD Index, I have a very hard time seeing US Equities re-flate. If President Obama wants to fix this USA underperformance mess, he needs to get out of the way, and let Bernanke "Break the Buck."

Our 2009 call on that front hasn't changed. Only marked-to-market prices have - and no matter where you go in this market of winners and losers, there those prices are. Keep letting your "performance do the thinking."

Best of luck to you and your respective teams in Q2 of 2009,
KM


LONG ETFS

RSX - Market Vectors Russia-The Russian macro fundamentals line up with our quantitative view on a TREND duration. Oil has benefited from the breakdown of the USD, which has buoyed the commodity levered economy. We're seeing the Ruble stabilize and are bullish Russia's decision to mark prices to market, which has allowed it to purge its ills earlier in the financial crisis cycle via a quicker decline in asset prices. Russia recognizes the important of THE client, China, and its oil agreement in February with China in return for a loan of $25 Billion will help recapitalize two of the country's important energy producers and suppliers.  

USO - Oil Fund- We bought oil on Wednesday (3/25) for a TRADE and are positive on the commodity from a TREND perspective. With the uptick of volatility in the contango, we're buying the curve with USO rather than the front month contract.  

EWC - iShares Canada-We bought Canada on Friday (3/20) into the selloff. We want to own what THE client (China) needs, namely commodities, as China builds out its infrastructure. Canada will benefit from commodity reflation, especially as the USD breaks down. We're net positive Harper's leadership, which diverges from Canada's large government recent history, and believe next year's Olympics in resource rich Vancouver should provide a positive catalyst for investors to get long the country.   

DJP - iPath Dow Jones-AIG Commodity -With the USD breaking down we want to be long commodity re-flation. DJP broadens our asset class allocation beyond oil and gold.  

XLK - SPDR Technology-Technology looks positive on a TRADE and TREND basis. Fundamentally, the sector has shown signs of stabilization over the last several weeks.  Semiconductor stocks, which are early cycle, have provided numerous positive data points on the back of destocking in the channel and overall end demand appears to be stabilizing.  Software earnings from ADBE and ORCL were less than toxic this week and point to a "less bad" environment.  As the world stabilizes, M&A should pick up given cash rich balance sheets in this sector and an IBM/JAVA transaction may well prove the catalyst to get things going.

EWA - iShares Australia-EWA has a nice dividend yield of 7.54% on the trailing 12-months.  With interest rates at 3.25% (further room to stimulate) and a $26.5BN stimulus package in place, plus a commodity based economy with proximity to China's H1 reacceleration, there are a lot of ways to win being long Australia.

GLD - SPDR Gold- We bought gold on a down day. We believe gold will re-assert its bullish TREND.

DVY - Dow Jones Select Dividend -We like DVY's high dividend yield of 5.85%.


SHORT ETFS

UUP - U.S. Dollar Index - We believe that the US Dollar is the leading indicator for the US stock market. In the immediate term, what is bad for the US Dollar should be good for the stock market. The Euro is down versus the USD at $1.3201. The USD is down versus the Yen at 98.9400 and down versus the Pound at $1.4380 as of 6am today.

EWL - iShares Switzerland - We shorted Switzerland for a TRADE on an up move Wednesday (3/25) and believe the country offers a good opportunity to get in on the short side of Western Europe, and in particular European financials. Switzerland has nearly run out of room to cut its interest rate and due to the country's reliance on the financial sector is in a favorable trading range. Increasingly Swiss banks are being forced by governments to reveal their customers, thereby reducing the incentive of Switzerland as a tax-free haven.

EWJ - iShares Japan - Into the strength associated with the recent market squeeze, we re-shorted the Japanese equity market rally via EWJ. This is a tactical short; we expect the market there to pull back when reality sinks in over the coming weeks. Japan has experienced major GDP contraction-it dropped 3.2% in Q4 '08 on a quarterly basis, and we see no catalyst for growth to return this year. We believe the BOJ's recent program to provide $10 Billion in loans to repair banks' capital ratios and a plan to combat rising yields by buying treasuries are at best a "band aid".

DIA -Diamonds Trust-We shorted the DJIA on Friday (3/13) and Tuesday (3/24).

EWW - iShares Mexico- We're short Mexico due in part to the country's dependence on export revenues from one monopolistic oil company, PEMEX. Mexican oil exports contribute significantly to the country's total export revenue and PEMEX pays a sizable percentage of taxes and royalties to the federal government's budget. This relationship is unstable due to the volatility of oil prices, the inability of PEMEX to pay down its debt, and the fact that PEMEX's crude oil production has been in decline since 2004 and is down 10% YTD.  Additionally, the potential geo-political risks associated with the burgeoning power of regional drug lords signals that the country's economy is under serious duress.

IFN -The India Fund- We have had a consistently negative bias on Indian equities since we launched the firm early last year. We believe the growth story of "Chindia" is dead. We contest that the Indian population, grappling with rampant poverty, a class divide, and poor health and education services, will not be able to sustain internal consumption levels sufficient to meet targeted growth level. Other negative trends we've followed include: the reversal of foreign investment, the decrease in equity issuance, and a massive national deficit. Trade data for February paints a grim picture with exports declining by 15.87% Y/Y and imports sliding by 18.22%.

XLP - SPDR Consumer Staples- This group is low beta and won't perform like Tech and Basic Materials do on market up days. There is a lot of currency and demand risk embedded in the P&L's of some of the large consumer staple multi-nationals; particularly in Latin America, Europe, and Japan.

SHY - iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bonds- On 2/26 we witnessed 2-Year Treasuries climb 10 bps to 1.09%. Anywhere north of +0.97% moves the bonds that trade on those yields into a negative intermediate "Trend." If you pull up a three year chart of 2-Year Treasuries you'll see the massive macro Trend of interest rates starting to move in the opposite direction. We call this chart the "Queen Mary" and its new-found positive slope means that America's cost of capital will start to go up, implying that access to capital will tighten. Yield is inversely correlated to bond price, so the rising yield is bearish for Treasuries.


HOT: FALLING EBITDA PULLS COVENANT INTO QUESTION

Starwood’s Maximum Consolidated Leverage Ratio calculation simply divides gross debt at the end of the period by Adjusted EBITDA (Reported Adjusted EBITDA less JV interest expense add-back plus adjustments for asset dispositions).  We estimate that HOT’s leverage ratio at the end 4Q08 was 3.6x, giving the company a 21% cushion on its EBITDA at its current debt balance of $4BN. 

Given Starwood’s reduction in capital expenditures and IRS refund, and a likely timeshare note securitization, we believe that the company will be able to reduce gross debt by $400MM by 4Q 2009. However, the debt reduction alone will not be enough to offset our projected 35% decrease in Adjusted EBITDA.  At 4.9x Leverage, HOT will violate the leverage covenant by $70MM or $320MM of debt capacity.  In other words, in order to make the 4.5x covenant, Starwood must generate reported Adjusted EBITDA of $820MM or reduce gross debt to $3.3BN on our EBITDA number.

HOT: FALLING EBITDA PULLS COVENANT INTO QUESTION - HOT LEVERAGE COVENANT

We believe, barring an asset sale, that Starwood will seek a credit amendment to increase leverage to 5.5x or (more likely) completely re-do its credit facility.  Since September 2008, there have been three relevant credit facilities amendments in the lodging space:  Ashford 12/24/2008, Strategic 2/25/2009, and Interstate Hotels: 3/30/2009.  Based on the comps, we believe that such an amendment would increase Starwood’s cost of borrow by approximately 150 bps. We also believe that the banks will ask HOT to discontinue its dividend in 2010 and seek to reduce the facility size by a $200-$500MM. 

However, given that the revolver matures April 2010 (including an extension option to Feb 2011), with a $500MM term loan maturing this June and another $500MM term loan maturing in June 2010, HOT will probably seek a complete refinancing of its bank facility.  A new credit facility is likely to be smaller in size ($1.25BN), and is likely to cost closer to 7% all-in (LIBOR Floors), which would represent $40MM in incremental annual interest expense or $0.15 in EPS.   

As we wrote about in past notes (“HOT: THE CREDIT IMPLICATIONS OF OUR FORECAST”, 01/28/09), we don’t see this as a big concern for the credit – but equity holders tend to get skittish on bad credit news.

 


LVS: MIRIAM STEPS UP (SO DOES SHELDON)

Sheldon Adelson and his wife each purchased 7.8 million shares of LVS for a total of around $45 million.  This is not chump change.  He and Miriam met with investors at an investor conference last week and by all accounts the meetings were positive.  In this space, we’re used to managements selling stock after they talk their stock up.  To his credit, they bought stock after the conference.  Bravo.

Are they throwing good money after bad?  It’s hard to believe that Sheldon would be buying that much stock if LVS was on its way to a major covenant breach and bankruptcy.  At the current price, the stock implies that bankruptcy is a realistic probability. 

The takeaway here is generally positive.  However, one note of caution is in order.  The purchase of stock diminishes the possibility of a near-term transaction announcement.  We still expect LVS to pursue the sale of the Macau malls and possibly casino assets but we can safely assume that nothing is imminent.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to find much negative in a Chairman doubling (not quite) down.


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