This article was originally published in February, the ad is recirculating with minor updates (mostly that the “deadline” is now April 1, versus previous versions that cited January 1 or February 1), so we’re re-sharing this piece to help answer continuing reader questions. What appears below has not been updated since 2/7/18.
I’m sure quite a few of you have seen the spiel for “Freedom Checks” in the past month or two — the ad includes a photo of Matt Badiali holding up a big, fat $114,287 check to the camera that looks very reminiscent of a United States Treasury check, with the big ol’ Statue of Liberty engraving and all.
It’s not, of course, that’s a private check — but more on that in a minute.
The spiel is a familiar one in many ways — it’s designed to make you feel like there’s a pot of free money that you can sign up for… at least until they get down to the details, by which point many readers will have lost interest (or, worse, will have already sent in their credit card number, hypnotized by that big, official check dancing in their eyes).
In this case, that money is called “U.S. Freedom Checks” … and though the same kind of pitch has been used many times to entice subscribers, including those spurious “Patriot Checks” that were advertised by Lifetime Income Report last year (that ad’s still running too, FYI, we get asked about it frequently), this one is pitching a different kind of investment entirely.
Yep, I said “investment.” Sorry, this is, as you might expect from an investment newsletter, an overhyped promise about something they think you should buy, not a way to get free money.
Still with us? OK, let’s see just what sort of investment Badiali is hinting at to provide you with those “Freedom Checks” … here’s a little taste of the ad to get you started:
“See this check … this one right here written out for $114,287?
“I call it a “freedom check.”
“Imagine this check being yours.
“All you have to do is sign it and cash it….
“It’s no wonder Reuters reports that freedom checks are ‘delivering a windfall’ and that Motley Fool says the ‘cash payouts are sky-high.’
“Barron’s reports … ‘it’s time to take a look.’
“Forbes gives them a … ‘bullish case.’
“And Seeking Alpha says freedom checks are a … ‘hidden gem.'”
So already, just a page or two into his “presentation,” we’ve got a few of those key items that every financial copywriter tries to squeeze into the pitch… a tantalizing taste of some big chunk of money coming your way, and some quotes from reputable sources that seem to back up that this idea is somehow real.
To be fair, they do also clarify that even though Badiali is holding up a check that looks a lot like a government check, it’s not a government payout…
“You can get started with a check just like this one right here as soon as next month thanks to a program that authorizes 568 agencies across the country to dole out this money.
“To be clear, this is not a government program … it’s not like Social Security or Medicare… It’s not a 401(k) or IRA or anything like that.
“It’s a much better program … there are no age requirements and the payouts can be much, much higher.
“After all, these agencies are slated to pay $34.6 billion over the next year to any American taxpayer with a claim on the cash….
“I’ll show you exactly how to stake your claim in just a moment. But you must act now if you want to start collecting your checks as early as next month.”Are you getting our free Daily Update
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We hear that kind of talk, phrases like “stake your claim”, in lots of these kinds of ads… it sounds like you just have to show up and fill out a form or issue a statement, doesn’t it?
Sorry, “stake your claim,” in such pitches, pretty much always means, “buy some shares.”And if that wasn’t enough enticement, there’s also a calendar with those huge payouts noted… $27.5 million on the first of the month, $68.5 million in the 15th, etc. All from “agencies” … one in Chicago, one in Atlanta, one in Washington State, one in Dallas, etc.
And, lest you get too hung up on those dates, the ad I saw in early January had the same generic calendar and promised that you had to get in by February 1, as this current ad urges you to get in by March 1. The urgency is not based on the actual urgent payout from any “Freedom Check” agency, it’s based on Badiali’s copywriter’s knowledge that if you wait and think it over you’re not as likely to sign up — so they need an “urgent” deadline.
More from Badiali:
“And depending on the size of your claim, you could collect $12,000 … $5,400 … $36,000 … and even $5,500.”
That’s a key notion that often slips past readers whose hopes start soaring when they see these ads… the “depending on the size of your claim” bit is, of course, a reference to the fact that if you invest more money, your payouts are higher.
That’s always true… it’s not news to anyone that “it takes money to make money,” but somehow those nice colorful images of checks and the promise that these are “freedom checks” makes us forget ourselves and begin to daydream.
And, of course, copywriters are there to encourage our daydreams… dreaming about riches makes money for them. Here’s more:
“Best of all, you can sign up to get these checks today regardless of your age, income or which state you live in.
“All you’ll have to do is decide how many of these freedom checks you want, stake your claim in this massive payout of up to $34.6 billion … sit back … and watch the cash pile up.”
And, of course, the false urgency is laid on nice and thick:
“But in order to do the same, you must get started immediately.
“As in right now, within the next hour.
“Because these 568 agencies from all over America are set to pay out as much as $34.6 billion starting next month. If your name is not on the list … you won’t get one red cent of it.”
We haven’t even gotten to the solution to the teaser yet, but I can already tell you with some certainty that these are not free payouts, they’re not one-time checks, and they’re not urgent — these are investments, where you commit your capital with some hope of future returns, and it’s always worth taking a few deep breaths and thinking it over before you commit money to a new investment.
Anyone who says you have to act “within the net hour” is not trying to get you into a perfect long-term investment, they’re trying to make sure they get your credit card number before you become distracted by a knock at the door, or a new cat video on facebook, or whatever else might grab you away before you fill out the order form.
So what are these “Freedom Checks?” Here’s what Badiali says:
“It’s a secret program every president from both sides of the aisle has been working on over the last 40 years … from Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all the way to Obama and even Trump — making this what many insiders have called the ‘last truly bipartisan policy.'”
OK, so we know that it’s not actually secret. That’s stupid.
“… these freedom checks have their origin in the belief that if the United States of America is to remain a FREE nation, we need to be self-sufficient….
“Bottom line — it makes zero sense for us to send $535 billion to hostile foreign countries every single year when we can make money from the $128 trillion of untapped resources right here at home.
“That’s why every president since Nixon has been working on a way to make our country truly self-sufficient.
“Nixon said ‘our independence will depend on maintaining and achieving self-sufficiency’ and pushed for a program like this from the moment he took office.”
And then we get some actually helpful details…
“After four decades of struggling, we may have finally found the perfect solution.
“The law that made it all possible … Statute 26-F.
“This statute basically says that companies can operate tax-free if they become a designated agency.
“To meet the requirements, a company…
1. Must generate 90% of its revenue from the production, processing, storage and transportation of the $128 trillion of natural resources in the United States, and…
2. Pay out lucrative freedom checks to all shareholders…”
Aha! So now we know, Badiali is pitching Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) … best known for owning and operating oil and gas pipelines, though the definition has enlarged to incorporate non-energy-focused publicly traded partnerships, like the giant investment banking group Blackstone (BX), MLPs are publicly traded partnerships that work as pass-through businesses, avoiding federal taxes as long as they pass through their profits to shareholders.
In truth, they almost all pass through far, far more to their shareholders than they actually earn in taxable profits, mostly because they don’t reinvest all of their depreciation allowance into maintenance or replacement and instead pass it through as “cash flow” or “distributable cash” (and the more “seat of their pants” operators just issue more shares to pay for the “capitalized” cost of maintenance and eventual replacement) … but yes, these are income-focused investments that usually carry relatively high distribution yields.
You’ll usually hear the terms “units” and “distributions” instead of “shares” or “dividends” when it comes to MLPs, partly because people are trying to be clear that these are not corporations, and the rules are a little different, particularly when it comes time to filing your taxes…. but when it comes to the basics trading MLPs is just like trading dividend-paying stocks. You buy shares, you get payments that you either take in cash or reinvest in more shares, and you hope that the payments (usually quarterly) will rise over time, and that the shares will also rise in value.
And no, there’s nothing magical about “next month” — MLPs almost all pay their dividends on a quarterly basis (though there are a few monthlies in there, and some don’t pay a dividend at all), so if you own shares/units by the right date, you’ll get that next quarterly payment… if not, you’ll get the payment after that.
He also cites some other investments as paying out “Freedom Checks”, including some not-very-successfully-greyed out hints about a “San Diega, CA Freedom Check” provider that will pay out $675 million soon (that one’s a REIT, Realty Income (O)), and a “New York NY Freedom Check” company that will pay out $1,867,090,000 (that one’s the aforementioned Blackstone (BX)) and a Houston, TX one that’s paying out $3.38 million (that one’s Enterprise Products Partners (EPD)).
So perhaps he’s just using the term to refer to all kinds of pass-through companies, whether they be pipeline MLPs, other publicly traded partnerships, Real Estate Investment Trusts, or others.
Which “Freedom Check” providers does Badiali actually recommend to folks who sign up for his newsletter? This is how he says he narrows them down:
“The first rule is that the company must have $1 billion or more of “In-Demand” assets at their fingertips.
“Be it oil, natural gas, gold, silver or rare earth minerals, I’m looking for companies that own or control billions of dollars in raw materials that are in high demand.”
OK, presumably that means a partnership/fund/REIT of some size… or perhaps he’s excluding those who don’t own actual raw materials (most MLPs own primarily transportation or processing assets, not actual commodities, though there are some producers too), we’ll see if he drops more hints.
“The second rule is consistent or increasing fat payments…. Many of the companies that make it to the top of my list are so profitable they actually increase their payments every year.”
Nothing shocking there — most investors, even income investors, prefer companies who are growing — in the case of dividend-paying companies (or distribution-paying partnerships), that usually means they have to grow their dividend. The dividend growth rate, over the long run, tends to be even more important than the actual current income yield… you want to make sure that the payments grow faster than inflation, at a minimum, but growing dividends also means that the share price will go up if investors remain happy with the income yield.
Say that you buy a stock with a current 5% dividend yield… that’s lovely. If the company raises the dividend by 10% next year, then other investors might also be willing to pay 10% more for the shares, assuming that a 5% yield is still attractive in the marketplace a year from now. Your income goes up, and the value of your shares goes up… and if you let those dividends reinvest into new shares, the income compounds fairly rapidly over time as you let your money make more money. That’s the dream.
The next rule is a bit squishier:
“Thirdly, the company must have a proven track record of making investors rich.”
Which is mostly more of the “follow the best managers” strategy that a lot of natural resources-focused investors like to use… perhaps because commodities and natural resources is a tough, cyclical and often low-margin business, so it’s more comforting to have someone at the helm with a good track record of riding those cycles.
Badiali says that “with the thousands of personal contacts I’ve amassed thorough the years, I know exactly which management teams have the Midas touch.” Which is, of course, an overstatement — plenty of wealthy and successful speculators have seen their “touch” disappear in a bear market — but we’ll leave that there.
“And lastly, I want to see bullet-proof financials.
“I look at everything from debt structure to free cash flow, and more than a dozen other metrics that give me a clear picture of the company’s financial health.”
How about some specifics? Which “Freedom Check” companies does Badiali actually recommend? Here are the clues he drops for us:
“The first company is what I call “a $14 billion profit machine.”
“This Chicago-based company is expected to pay out $28 million next month.
“And with the power to control $14 billion worth of raw materials that fuel a $113 billion industry, this next round of freedom checks is only the start of the money that can be had in the weeks ahead.”
I don’t know for sure what this one is, but the best match the Thinkolator presented is the MLP arm of a coking coal company, SunCoke Energy Partners (SXCP), which owns a share of Suncoke’s cokemaking and logistics (coke transport) businesses, pretty much all in service to the major US steelmakers. They will pay out roughly $28 million per quarter (it was actually $29.5 million las quarter), and the current yield is quite high at about 12.5% ($18.90 share price, 59 cent quarterly dividend).
They have paid the same dividend for about two years, I don’t know what would make it rise or fall, but they did release what they described as “above guidance” earnings about a week ago and provide what they call “strong” guidance for 2018.
The second company will set you up for “rapid-fire windfalls.”
“Based in Fort Worth, this company is moments away from paying out $34 million in freedom checks.
“In fact, it’s so profitable … it pays this $34 million out … every month!
“It’s easy for this company to make these rapid payments as it rakes in cash from an estimated 42.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 381 million barrels of oil.
“And here’s the best part.
“Depending on how much money you put in, you could easily see freedom checks totaling $19,466, $48,000 and even $97,000 in the days ahead.
“One man from New York City named Malcom grabbed a stake in this firm for less than $10 bucks and has since gone all in … amassing an absolute fortune in freedom checks.
“Just a few days from now, he will have the chance to cash his freedom check for $305,000 … and since he gets these checks every month, he is set to collect $3.6 million over the next year.
“And as mentioned, I’ll show you how to claim your share of the $34 million in payouts for less than $10 when you act today!”
That $42.6 tcf of natural gas and 381 million barrels of oil sounds like a reference to the San Juan Basin, so although the financial numbers are inflated above my best guess (and it is a guess) is that he’s referring to the San Juan Basin Royalty Trust (SJT), which is not a partnership but is a grantor trust that owns the mineral rights to a large swath of oil and gas producing lands in the San Juan Basin and collects royalties on those lands.
Trusts can be a bit odd to understand for stock investors, but they can essentially be thought of as fixed investments in an underlying royalty — trusts cannot reinvest or participate in capital projects or really do anything active at all, they just monitor their assets and collect their checks and distribute the income to shareholders of the trust. Income levels depend both on the level of production on their royalty lands, and, of course, on the actual price of the commodity — so as natural gas or oil rise, their cash flow should generally accelerate (because actual revenue from existing production is more valuable, and because that spurs more drilling). They are, by definition, depleting assets so you want to watch and make sure you understand what level of reserves are still available for production.
I don’t know much else about SJT specifically, but that’s my best guess. And since the company itself felt compelled to put up a FAQ entry answering the questions they’ve been getting about “Freedom Checks” that’s pretty good confirmation. SJT does pay out distributions monthly, the distribution for January was 6.6844 cents per share so if you annualized that would be a yield of almost exactly 9% at the current price of about $9 (the distribution is NOT steady or managed, it’s the real distribution of their actual cash flow, so it’s somewhat unpredictable).
They do not pay out nearly $34 million per month, but that’s close to what their average annual payment has been — since 2001 their annual distribution has ranged from a high of $151 million ($3.25 per share) to a low of $14 million (30 cents per share), with the highs being in the mid-2000s when natural gas prices were far higher, and the low being in 2016. You can see that history of distributions here.
“I call this third company “the $17 billion gold mine.”
“What I love about this company isn’t just how much gold it is sitting on … it’s how it hauls in $3.6 million per employee.
“To put that in perspective, that’s 50% better than Apple and twice as strong a Google… yet its stock can be scooped up for 1/20 the price.
“It’s already lined up to pay out 12 checks amounting to $589 million.
“You can get all the details on these three companies, along with two additional ones that are just as good if not better — companies that will line your back pocket with up to 44 freedom checks every year — in my new report called The $34.6 Billion Payout.”
That “per employee” number sounds impressive, and it is, but that’s because this is likely to be effectively a non-operating company — not unlike lots of other pass-throughs, there are a lot of BDCs, REITs and publicly traded partnerships that generate more than $3.5 million in income per employee over the past year… mostly because, unlike Apple or Google, their income-generating assets are things, not people. Stocks in my portfolio pop up on this list as well, particularly triple-net real estate owners like Medical Properties Trust (MPW), just because it doesn’t take many employees to own a hospital’s real estate… the employees are hired by the hospitals, which have to do their own maintenance and upkeep and pay taxes in addition to taking care of patients (that’s the “triple net” bit — tenants have all the responsibilities for the property, the REIT just owns it).
But no, this isn’t a triple net real estate company, it’s something gold related. There are not any gold companies that pay out $589 million a year in distributions or dividends. Even among the large gold companies like Barrick or Goldcorp or Newmont, the total outlay for dividends in a year is unlikely to get much above $100 million. And, of course, those big gold miners have hundreds and thousands of employees.
So we’ll throw out a guess here: This might be Franco-Nevada (FNV), the granddaddy of the gold royalty companies. It’s not a pass-through, and it doesn’t pay a huge dividend, but it does have a yield of over 1% and it is a hugely efficient cash-generating machine, using just a couple dozen headquarters employees to manage a portfolio of hundreds of royalty contracts on gold mines, platinum mines, and oil and gas projects around the world. FNV is in my portfolio, and it’s clearly the class of the gold royalty space, though it’s also quite expensive these days and is already carrying that “blue chip” valuation.
That’s all I’ve got time for today in checking on these “Freedom Check” ideas… there’s nothing wrong with a focus on income-paying or cash-flowing industries that are designed to directly pay out cash to shareholders, but there’s no magic to it, either — to get higher cash payouts you have to be willing to take more (or different) risks with your capital than other investors and buy those relatively higher-yield investments, or you have to invest more in the first place.
And Badiali is not the only one pitching MLPs, for example, which have had a nice recovery as the oil market has recovered — Jeffrey Gundlach at DoubleLine, to name one other, has been talking up MLPs (and commodities) early this year — he’s often referred to as the “bond god” and likes MLPs as a “bond proxy”, specifically noting that he likes one of the Tortoise MLP closed-end funds (ticker NTG). That one liked the Gundlach attention and bumped up to a bit of a premium over NAV in recent weeks, but still does carry that forward expected dividend yield of close to 9% (they use some leverage to boost the dividend, so they’ll be a bit more interest-rate sensitive as well).
Most of the relatively conservative or “safer” MLPs and REITs have dividend/distribution yields i