George Soros is a complicated man. If you've ever read any of his books, you know what I mean; he's one-third Warren Buffett, one-third Karl Popper, and one-third UNICEF. It's quite an eclectic mix, one that can leave investors who follow his moves in a scramble to understand the method of his madness.
This is one of those situations.
Soros recently disclosed a sizable stake in Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH ) , nearly 10 million shares. That might not be a huge surprise; Lehman has been clobbered to such a pulp that it's hard to justify its price, absent a looming collapse. Its current price, less than half of book value, is a fat discount from peers like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER ) , and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) -- perhaps rightfully so. Of course, one man's trash is another man's treasure, and Soros is scooping up shares he apparently sees as cheap.
But isn't this the same guy who said ...
Confused? So am I. Soros has been one of the most vocal critics of financial firms. The first page of his latest book warns: "We are in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. In some ways it resembles other crises that have occurred ... but there is a profound difference: the current crisis marks the end of an era of credit expansion ..." Earlier this year, he described the threads of credit default swaps linking financial firms together as "a sword of Damocles that is bound to fall." Yikes.
That isn't the kind of language you'd expect to hear from someone bullish on a company like Lehman. Short of a complete turnaround in opinion, what else could possibly explain his move?
Two possibilities come to mind. Either this is a short-term trade Soros plans on ditching if Lehman makes a quick rebound (in fact, it already has -- shares are up more than 10% since bottoming out in July), or it's a bet that recapitalization moves will shore up Lehman's balance sheet enough to justify trading closer to its peers. As for the latter, some feel the extreme negativity that has annihilated Lehman's shares might be overblown, and that the hedges it has put in place to stabilize assets could mellow things out. Given the outrageous amount of negativity, any news that's slightly positive is bound to be significantly positive for Lehman's shares.
Don't get too excited here
Having Soros in Lehman's corner is a tremendous vote of confidence, but be careful here. If you're eager to follow Soros, it's probably better to read his outlook on financial companies, rather than follow his trading moves. He's voiced his opinion about their future, and it's terrible at best. If your only justification for owning Lehman is because Soros does, too, you might be setting yourself up for trouble. After all, he won't tell you when he plans on selling.
For related Foolishness: