Levine on Wall Street: Watch Out for the Gardeners

There are 2013 retrospectives, and there are 2014 outlooks, and then there is the story of the Kazakh bank fraudster arrested by gardeners.

Some people had a good 2013.

The S&P 500's 32 percent total return last year made a lot of professional investors look like chumps, but not all of them. Here is a rundown of some non-chumps, including Chris Tuohy at Tudor Investment Corp. who was short gold and made something like a 1,000 percent return. (And who is "known in trading circles for adopting a so-called paleo diet," which I feel like can't be that strong a claim to distinction in trading circles?) David Tepper's Appaloosa Management did well buying call options, though he loses style points for describing himself as "cautiously bullish." There's a bunch of others. John Paulson had a good year which is nice for him. Meanwhile here is a delightful story from the Atlantic about how you could have turned $1,000 into $264 billion in 2013 by just buying and selling the best performing stock each day. So sure some hedge funds beat the S&P but no one got close to that real benchmark of perfection.

Warren Buffett had a mediocre 2009 through 2013.

Warren Buffett's self-imposed goal is to increase Berkshire Hathaway's book value faster than the S&P 500's total returns over every rolling five-year period, and he's actually done it since he took over Berkshire in 1965. Until now: Berkshire's book value per share has increased by 80 percent over the last 5 years, versus 128 percent total return for the S&P, though that data is only through the third quarter and maybe he caught up quick over the winter. You don't have to be a Buffett idolizer to agree with the guy quoted here:

"He's been awfully honest" by keeping the goal the same, said Tom Russo, a partner at Berkshire investor Gardner Russo & Gardner. "He didn't pick it because it was an easy benchmark."

Still feels like a bit of the magic is gone.

There will be M&A in 2014.

Here is a roundup of mergers and acquisitions activity in 2013, which at more than $1 trillion of U.S. deals was the most robust since the financial crisis. Which is to say it was less robust than the best pre-crisis years, which is a little puzzling. As Scott Barshay of Cravath puts the puzzle, "All year we've had strong equity markets, cheap debt and ho-hum M.&A. That usually doesn't happen and it is finally starting to change." Also here is a theory of M&A:

"The pressure is building for companies to justify their trading multiples," Mr. Ventresca of JPMorgan said. "It will be hard to deliver that organically, so you have to look for inorganic growth."

Fiat is buying Chrysler cheap.

Fiat announced that it's buying the minority of Chrysler that it doesn't already own from a United Auto Workers retiree benefits trust. The trust will get total payments of around $4.4 billion, less than the $5 billion-ish numbers that had been thrown around in this long-drawn-out negotiation, and the consensus is that Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne got himself a sweet deal. You do not normally see analysts react to merger news by saying things like "Marchionne did a great job. Fiat couldn't get a better deal." Or that it's "a bit of a coup and will be seen as a big positive surprise." Or "We thought they were going to have to pay a lot more than that. The market's going to love this - Marchionne's done it again." Really, you people know that the UAW people can read those comments, right? Seems a bit embarrassing for them to keep reading that they got taken.

Bank fraud in Kazakhstan is exciting.

Here is the story of the former chairman of a bank in Kazakhstan who seems to have embezzled billions of dollars -- though that's a hotly disputed and politicized issue -- after his "business partner died in a freak wolf-hunting mishap." He disappeared from his posh London exile, apparently using a fake Central African Republic diplomatic passport, and was eventually found by private detectives in a villa in the South of France, where he was arrested "by a squad of gendarmes disguised as gardeners." This is the way you want to do it if you're going to commit financial fraud. I mean, better not to be arrested at all, but if you're going to get caught you might as well have it read like a spy novel.

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    To contact the author on this story:
    Matthew S Levine at mlevine51@bloomberg.net

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