David Tepper on investing under uncertainty: theory

by PlanMaestro

Much like Eddie Lampert was able to see value in Kmart when everyone else wrote the company off. Tepper is great at identifying the true value of a company when the company looks like it is worthless- David is able to extract value where others cannot see or understand. And the exit strategy is simple thereafter! – Frank DeRose, Ferrata Capital

David Tepper is not the investor most easy to understand: media shy and does not like to talk about specific positions. His is a bond shop so the 13Fs only show a small part of his portfolio. Incredibly, Appaloosa’s offices are in New Jersey overlooking a mall parking lot. Even in politics he keeps his cards close to the chest: tell me the rules, just make them stable and certain.

Nevertheless, I decided to dissect the few resources available and see if there was anything to learn from him. The reason? over the last two years it was very surprising to me how often sectors, companies and even specific ideas that got my interest were part of his portfolio. Only that his results, given the size of his portfolio, were nothing short of amazing and I usually was one step behind.

He was a boundary-pusher, loud and profane, and a know-it-all – NY Magazine Profile

Some of you may wonder on what could be the use of investigating the habits of a former trader? David Tepper’s education was trading at Goldman Sachs but I take issue on that he is just a trader. His public equity positions have been medium to long term -Bank of America and other banks securities were bought in March 2009 and  still has them- and  has been active in several situations looking to improve companies finances -ie: Delphi and General Motors-. And that combination makes him interesting and someone from whom to learn a couple of tricks.

Distressed debt is Tepper’s specialty. He has mentioned that distressed is very similar to risk arbitrage. Actually the much descredited but still interesting Robert Rubin, who was head of Goldman’s risk arbitrage some time ago, was somewhat of a mentor so why not pick Rubin’s book and see what he says of this discipline:

In arbitrage, as in philosophy, you analyze, look for holes in the analysis, and seek conclusions that hold together. However, while analytical rigor may be sufficient for philosophy, it’s not enough for arbitrage -as in policy making- you also have to be able to pull the trigger, even when your information is imperfect and your questions can’t all be answered. You have to make a decision: Should I make this investment or not? You begin with probing questions and end having to accept that some of them will be imperfectly answered -or not answered at all. And you have to have the stomach for risk. – In an Uncertain World, Robert Rubin

Some would say this is reckless, and profane Tepper would probably interject balls to the wall. However, if you look more deeply he protects the downside and lives to fight another day when he is wrong.

  • Bond shop: he looks to the whole capital structure for opportunities for the best risk/reward tradeoff. Bonds and preferreds provide better protection, and in times of panic their rewards can still be substantial.
  • Themes are macro but investments are micro: He has a view on the financial difficulties and perspectives of a country, but the quality of the specific ideas he finally invests in provides another layer of protection.
  • Do not fight the government: And that means not just the FED. In March 2009, he trusted a federal government document detailing the banks bailout. You wonder if this only works in the USA, I am sure I would not trust other countries governments not to brake the law.
  • Sell fast if you make a mistake: probably a heritage of his trader days, he is willing to recognize he is wrong fast and close his positions. This sometimes has put him in awkward situations like Delphi: “pushed, with the grace and diplomacy of a battering ram, to play a central role in the reorganization of the company, only to turn tail and manufacture an excuse once they lost interest.”
  • Do not use leverage: for Russia 1998 he had leverage, but it was low and he learned his lesson. If his recent results are any evidence, leverage is not needed for high returns.
  • Hedge: if there is a possibility to filter the thesis in a pure way, hedge. At the end, was not this what hedge funds were about?
  • Markets adapt, people adapt: And if all that does not work, markets tend to heal themselves

I got a headache because I was listening to one guy talking about how there’s gonna be hyperinflation. And then after him there was some guy telling me there’s going to be a depression and deflation. Neither—neither—is most likely going to happen. The point is, markets adapt, people adapt. Don’t listen to all the crap out there – Ira Sohn conference May 2010

But the one thing that I would like to emphasize, and this comes straight from Rubin’s book, is the importance of scenarios, probabilities and downside for distressed investing and we are going to look next some of his famous moments to see how this all works… do you think you can make decisions with trees?