Market Overview

Did Jefferies Tip Hat to Sean Egan with Asset Downsize?

Jefferies (NYSE: JEF) may have had tough words a month ago for Sean Egan of Egan-Jones following a downgrade, but today the company appeared to have acted on the very concerns Egan-Jones had stressed on its report. The banner-head of what Jefferies is calling a successful fourth quarter is its severe reduction of its balance sheet, primarily in its European sovereign debt assets, which it initiated in November. After being pummeled to half its value at the beginning of the year, Jefferies is recouping back as much as 19 percent at the time of this article, having emerged today with earnings above estimates on top of a smaller balance sheet.

This morning, the company posted EPS of $0.17 per share, handily beating estimates by three cents. Its balance sheet was reported to have been slimmed down to the tune of $10 billion or 25 percent. This was largely achieved by divestiture of its positions on European sovereign debt, which sent its leverage from 12.9:1 to 9.9:1.

It was its $6.3 billion European Sovereign debt that had painted the company as the next in line to fail following MF Global's demise in October. Egan-Jones raised the most notable flag on Jefferies, as it viewed the firm's 13:1 gross leverage to be excessive and that, short of a $1 billion in new equity, its credit rating would be reduced.

At the time, heavily in defensive attack mode, Jefferies pounced to say that its leverage was comparable to Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), both much larger competitors. Jefferies CEO and Chairman Richard Handler was especially hands-on in protecting his firm, implying that flags raised by Egan-Jones were rumor mongering from entities with potential short interest.

That was then, and today is different. Having laid down the punching gloves, Mr. Handler was in a joyful mood as Jefferies touted a fourth quarter performance that was admittedly lackluster in normal conditions, but that demonstrated his firm's success in passing what in essence was a six-month stress test. There were no indications on whether he considered the effusive shedding of gross leverage as a tipping of the hat to “rumor mongers.”

Sean Egan took note of the Jefferies report when he appeared on CNBC earlier today, acknowledging that Jefferies' risk profile was now substantially less than it had been in November. The company's over-performance in cutting the balance sheet, as compared to the $5 billion his ratings firm had suggested, was not lost on Mr. Egan, who allowed that he would probably “back off” on the suggested $1 billion in new equity. He did not let the praise go on for too long, however, as he reinforced that Jefferies will only have passed the test once it maintains a low balance sheet going forward and does not repeat MF Global's failure to isolate customer margin funds with leveraged investments. The company's over-reliance on wholesale funding was also pinpointed as a cause for ongoing concern.

All of that will have to be tackled another day. For now, in pure Wall Street fashion, Jefferies and the markets are focusing on enjoying the win while they can. JEF is currently trading at $14.12 per share, up $2.28 or 19.66 percent up on the session.


ACTION ITEMS:

Bullish:
Do you believe the worst is over with financial services companies like Jefferies? Bullish traders may want to consider the following trades:
  • Long second-tier investment banks like JEF, Piper Jaffray (NYSE: PJC) or Raymond James (NYSE: RJF): their relatively small size handicaps them in terms of funding options, but makes it easier to tailor balance sheets to reflect market conditions.
  • Long Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS): These top-tier financial services companies have more assets and better funding than second-tier companies, while they are learning the lesson when it comes to blessings of a lean balance sheet.
Bearish:
Traders who believe that there is more correction yet to occur in the sector may consider alternative positions:
  • Short JEF: the market may realize that its exhuberance cannot make up for still-standing concerns on wholesale funding or a balance sheet that may yet inflate, and today's swelling may be tomorrow's short profit.
  • Long Treasuries and the US Dollar, which as always provide shelter in interesting times.
Neither Benzinga nor its staff recommend that you buy, sell, or hold any security. We do not offer investment advice, personalized or otherwise. Benzinga recommends that you conduct your own due diligence and consult a certified financial professional for personalized advice about your financial situation.

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