Weekend Update – February 16, 2014

Is our normal state of dysfunction now on vacation?

Barely seven trading days earlier many believed that we were finally on the precipice of the correction that had long eluded the markets.

Sometimes it’s hard to identify what causes sudden directional changes, much less understand the nature of what caused the change. That doesn’t stop anyone from offering their proprietary insight into that which may sometimes be unknowable.

Certainly there will be technicians who will be able to draw lines and when squinting really hard be able to see some kind of common object-like appearing image that foretold it all. Sadly, I’ve never been very adept at seeing those images, but then again, I even have a hard time identifying “The Big Dipper.”

Others may point to an equally obscure “Principle” that hasn’t had the luxury of being validated because of its rare occurrences that make it impossible to distinguish from the realm of “coincidence.”

For those paying attention it’s somewhat laughable thinking how with almost alternating breaths over the past two weeks we’ve gone from those warning that if the 10 year Treasury yield got up to 3% the market would react very negatively, to warnings that if the yield got below 2.6% the markets would be adverse. There may also be some logical corollaries to those views that are equally not borne out in reality.

Trying to explain what may be irrational markets, which are by and large derivatives of the irrational behaviors found in those comprising the markets, using a rational approach is itself somewhat irrational.

Crediting or blaming trading algorithms has to recognize that even they have to begin with the human component and will reflect certain biases and value propositions.

But the question has to remain what caused the sudden shifting of energy from its destruction to its creation? Further, what sustained that shift to the point that the “correction” had itself been corrected? As someone who buys stocks on the basis of price patterns there may be something to the observation that all previous attempts at a correction in the past 18 months have been halted before the 10% threshold and quickly reversed, just as this most recent attempt.

That may be enough and I suppose that a chart could tell that story.

But forget about those that are suggesting that the market is responding to better than expected earnings and seeking a rational basis in fundamentals. Everyone knows or should know that those earnings are significantly buoyed by share buybacks. There’s no better way to grow EPS than to shrink the share base. Unfortunately, that’s not a strategy that builds for the future nor lends itself to continuing favorable comparisons.

I think that the most recent advance can be broken into two component parts. The first, which occurred in the final two days of the previous trading week which had begun with a 325 point gain was simply what some would have called “a dead cat bounce.” Some combination of tiring from all of the selling and maybe envisioning some bargains.

But then something tangible happened the next week that we haven’t seen for a while. It was a combination of civility and cooperation. The political dysfunction that had characterized much of the past decade seemed to take a break last week and the markets noticed. They even responded in a completely normal way.

Early in the week came rumors that the House of Representatives would actually present a “clean bill” to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. No fighting, no threats to shut down the government and most importantly the decision to ignore the “Hastert Rule” and allow the vote to take place.

The Hastert Rule was a big player in the introduction of dysfunction into the legislative process. Even if a majority could be attained to pass a vote, the bill would not be brought to a vote unless a majority of the majority party was in favor the bill. Good luck trying to get that to occur in the case of proposing no “quid pro quo” in the proposal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

The very idea of some form of cooperation by both sides for the common good has been so infrequent as to appear unique in our history. Although the common good may actually have taken a back seat to the need to prevent looking really bad again, whatever the root cause for a cessation to a particular form of dysfunction was welcome news.

While that was being ruminated, Janet Yellen began her first appearance as Federal Reserve Chairman, as mandated by the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill.

Despite the length of the hearings which would have even tired out Bruce Springsteen, they were entirely civil, respectful and diminished in the use of political dogma and talking points. There may have even been some fleeting moments of constructive dialogue.

Normal people do that sort of thing.

But beyond that the market reacted in a straightforward way to Janet Yellen’s appearance and message that the previous path would be the current path. People, when functioning in a normal fashion consider good news to be good news. They don’t play speculative games trying to take what is clear on the surface to its third or fourth derivative.

Unfortunately, for those who like volatility, as I do, because it enhances option premiums, the lack of dysfunction and the more rational approach to markets should diminish the occurrence of large moves in opposite directions to one another. In the real world realities don’t shift that suddenly and on such a regular basis, however, the moods that have moved the markets have shifted furiously as one theory gets displaced by the next.

How long can dysfunction stay on vacation? Human nature being what it is, unpredictable and incapable of fully understanding reality, is why so many in need stop taking their medications, particularly for chronic disorders. I suspect it won’t be long for dysfunction to re-visit.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum and “PEE” categories this week (see details).

Speaking of dysfunction, that pretty well summarizes the potash cartel. Along with other, one of my longtime favorite stocks, Mosaic (MOS) has had a rough time of things lately. In what may be one of the great blunders and miscalculations of all time, there is now some speculation that the cartel may resume cooperation, now that the CEO of the renegade breakaway has gone from house arrest in Belarus to extradition to Russia and as none of the members of the cartel have seen their fortunes rise as they have gone their separate ways.

In the interim Mosaic has traded in a very nice range after recovering from the initial shock. While I still own more expensively priced shares their burden has been somewhat eased by repetitive purchases of Mosaic and the sale of call contracts. Following an encouraging earnings report shares approached their near term peak. I would be anxious to add shares on even a small pullback, such as nearing $47.50.

^TNX ChartOne position that I’ve enjoyed sporadically owning has been MetLife (MET) which reported earnings last week. As long as interest rates are part of anyone’s equation for predicting where markets or stocks will go next, MetLife is one of those stocks that received a bump higher as interest rates started climbing concurrent with the announcement of the Federal Reserve;’s decision to initiate a taper to Quantitative Easing.

Cisco (CSCO), to hear the critics tell the story is a company with a troubled future and few prospects under the continued leadership of John Chambers. For those with some memory, you may recall that Chambers has been this route before and has been alternatively glorified, pilloried and glorified again. Currently, he has been a runner-up in the annual contest to identify the worst CEO of the year.

Personally, I have no opinion, but I do like the mediocrity in which shares have been mired. It’s that kind of mediocrity that creates a stream of option premiums and, in the case of Cisco, dividends, as well. With the string of disappointments continued at last week’s earnings report, Cisco did announce another dividend increase while it recovered from much of the drop that it sustained at first.

I’m never quite certain why I like Whole Foods (WFM). What this winter season has shown is that many people are content to stay at home any eat whatever gluten they can find rather than brave the elements and visit a local store for the healthier things in life. I think Whole Foods is now simply making the transition from growth stock to boring stock. If that is the case I expect to be owning it more often as with boring comes that price predictability that appeals to me so much.

This week’s potential dividend trades are a disparate group if you ignore that they have all under-performed the S&P 500 since its peak.

General Electric (GE) is just one of those perfect examples of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and perhaps not being in the right place at the right time. Much of General Electric’s woes when the market was crumbling in 2008 was its financial services group. Since the market bottom its shares have outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 50%, as GE has taken steps to reduce its financial services portfolio. Unfortunately that means that it won’t be in a position to benefit from any rising interest rate environment as can reasonably be expected to be in our future.

Still, coming off its recent price decline and offering a strong dividend this week its shares look inviting, even if only for a short term holding.

L Brands (LB) along with most of the rest of the retail sector hasn’t been reflective of a strong consumer economy. Having recovered about 50% of its recent fall and going ex-dividend this coming week I’m ready to watch it recover some more lost ground as its specialty retailing has appeared to have greater resilience than department store competitors. 

Transocean (RIG) still hasn’t recovered from its recent ratings cut from “sector outperform” to “sector perform.” I’ve never understood the logic of that kind of  assessment, particularly if the sector may still be in a position to outperform the broad market. However, equally hard to understand is the reaction, especially when the entire sector goes down in unison in response. Subsequently Transocean also received an outright “sell” recommendation and has been mired near its two year lows.

With a very healthy ex-dividend date this week I may have renewed interest in adding shares. While he has been quiet of late, at its latest disclosure, Icahn Enterprises (IEP) owned approximately 6% of Transocean and to some degree serves as a floor to share price, as does the dividend which is scheduled to increase to $3 annually.

However, as with L Brands, which also reports earnings on February 26, 2104, I would also consider an exit or rollover strategy for those that may want to mitigate earnings related risk that will present itself. Such strategies may include closing out the position below the purchase price or rolling over to a March 2014 option in order to have some additional time to ride out any storms.

There’s really not much reason to take sides in the validity of claims regarding the nature of Herbalife (HLF). It has certainly made for amusing theater, as long as you either stayed on the sidelines or selected the right side. With the recent suggestion that some on the long side of the equation have been selling shares this week’s upcoming earnings release may offer some opportunity, as shares have already fallen nearly 16%.

While the option market is only implying a 7.2% move in share price, the sale of a put can return a weekly 1% ROI even at a strike price 13.7% below the current price. That is about the largest cushion I recall seeing and does look appealing for those that may have an inclination to take on risk. I’m a little surprised of how low the implied price movement appears to be, however, the surprise is answered when seeing how unresponsive shares have been the past year upon earnings news.

Also reporting earnings this week is Groupon (GRPN), a stock that has taken on some credibility since replacing its one time CEO, who never enjoyed the same cycle of adulation and disdain as did John Chambers. While the “Daily Deal” space is no longer one that gets much attention, Groupon has demonstrated that all of the cautionary views warning of how few barriers to entry existed, were vacuous. Where there were few barriers were to exit the space. 

In the meantime the options market is predicting a 13.9% move related to earnings, while a weekly 1.3% ROI could possibly be achieved with a price movement of less than 19%. While that kind of downward move is possible, there is some very strong support above there.

Finally, there is the frustration of owning AIG (AIG) at the moment. The frustration comes from watching for the second successive earnings report shares climb smartly higher in the after-hours and then completely reverse direction the following day. I continue to believe that its CEO, Robert Benmosche is something of a hero for the manner in which he has restored AIG and created an historical reference point in the event anyone ever questions some future day bailout of a systemically vital company.

None of that hero worship matters as far as any proposed purchased this coming week. However, shares may be well priced and in a sector that’s ready for some renewed interest.

Traditional Stocks: AIG, Cisco, MetLife, Whole Foods

Momentum Stocks: Mosaic

Double Dip Dividend: General Electric (ex-div 2/20), L Brands (ex-div 2/19), Transocean (ex-div 2/19)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Groupon (12/20 PM) , Herbalife (2/18 PM)

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. The above selections may become actionable, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts, in adjustment to and consideration of market movements. The overriding objective is to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.

Weekend Update – January 12, 2014

Confusion Reigns.

January is supposed to be a very straightforward month. Everyone knows how it’s all supposed to go.

The market moves higher and the rest of the year simply follows. Some even believe it’s as simple as the first five trading days of the year setting the tone for the remainder still to come.

Since the market loves certainty, the antithesis of confusion, the idea of a few days or even a month ordaining the outcome of an entire year is the kind of certainty that has broad appeal.

But with the fifth trading day having come to its end on January 8th, the S&P 500 had gone down 11 points. Now what? Where do we turn for certainty?

To our institutions, of course, especially our central banking system which has steadfastly guided us through the challenges of the past 6 years. The year started with some certainty as Federal Reserve Chairman nominee Janet Yellen was approved by a vote that saw fewer negative votes cast than when her predecessor Ben Bernanke last stood for Senate approval, although there were far fewer total votes, too. On a positive note, while there was voting confusion among political lines, there was only certainty among gender lines.

While Dr. Yellen’s confirmation was a sign to many that a relatively dovish voice would predominate the FOMC, even as some more hawkish governors become voting members this year, the announcement that Dr. Stanley Fischer was being nominated as Vice-Chair sends a somewhat different message and may embolden the more hawkish elements of the committee.

That seems confusing. Why would you want to do that? But then again, why would you have pulled the welcome mat out from under Ben Bernanke?

Then on Friday morning came the first Employment Situation Report of the new year and no one was remotely close in their guesses. Nobody was so pessimistic as to believe that the fewest new jobs created in 14 months would be the result.

But the real confusion was whether that was good news or bad news. Did we want disappointing employment statistics? How would the “new” Federal Reserve react? Would they step way from the taper or embrace it as hawks exert their philosophical position?

More importantly, how is a January Rally supposed to take root in the remaining 14 trading days in this kind of muddled environment?

Personally, I like the way the year has begun, there’s not too much confusion about that being the case, despite my first week having been mediocre. While the evidence is scant that the first five days has great predictive value, there is evidence to suggest that there is no great predictive value for the remainder of the year if January ends the month lower. I like that because my preference is alternating periods of certainty and confusion, as long as the net result remains near the baseline. That is a perfect scenario for a covered option strategy and also tends to increase premiums as volatility is enhanced.

I prefer to think of it as counter-intuitive rather than confusing.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum and “PEE” categories this week (see details).

There’s not much confusion when it comes to designating the best in large retail of late. Most everyone agrees that Macys (M) has been the best among a sorry bunch, yet even the best of breed needed to announce large layoffs in order to get a share price boost after being range bound. However, this week the embattled retail sector seems very inviting despite earnings disappointments and the specter of lower employment statistics and spending power.

Finding disappointments among retailers isn’t terribly difficult, as even Bed Bath and Beyond (BBBY), which could essentially do nothing wrong in 2013 more than made up for that by reporting its earnings report. While earnings themselves were improved, it was the reduced guidance that seems to have sent the buyers fleeing. There was no confusion regarding how to respond to the disappointment, yet its plummet brings it back toward levels where it can once again be considered as a source of option premium income, in addition to some opportunity for share appreciation.

L Brands (LB) shares are now down approximately 12% in the past 6 weeks. It is one of those stocks that I’ve owned, but have been waiting far too long to re-own while waiting for its price to return to reasonable levels. Like Bed Bath and Beyond it offered lower guidance for the coming quarter after heavy promotions that are likely to reduce margins.

Target (TGT) has had enough bad news to last it for the rest of the year. While it recently reported that it sales had been better than expected prior to the computer card data hack, it also acknowledged that there was a tangible decline in shopping activity in its aftermath. Its divulging that as many as 70 million accounts may have been compromised, it seemed to throw all bad news into the mix, as often incoming CEOs do with write-downs, so as to make the following quarter look good in comparison. For its part, Target, recovered nicely on Friday from its initial price decline and has been defending the $62.50 line that I believe will be a staging point higher.

Sears Holdings (SHLD) on the other hand doesn’t even pretend to be a retailer. The promise of great riches in its real estate holdings is falling on deaf ears and its biggest proponent and share holder, Eddie Lampert, has seen his personal stake reduced amid hedge fund redemptions. Shares plummeted after reporting disappointing holiday sales. What’s confusing about Sears Holding is how there is even room for disappointment and how the Sears retail business continues, as it has recently been referred to as a “national tragedy.”

But I have a soft spot in my heart for companies that suffer large event driven price drops. Not that I believe there is sustainable life after such events, but rather that there are opportunities to profit from other people like me who smell an opportunity and add support to the share price. However, my time frame is short and I don’t necessarily expect investor largesse to continue.

I did sell puts on Sears Holding on Friday, but would not have done so if the event and subsequent share plunge had been earlier in the option cycle. Sears Holdings, only offers monthly options and in this case there is just one week left in that cycle. If faced with the possibility of assignment I would hope to be able to roll the puts options forward, but do have some concerns about a month long exposure, despite what would likely be an attractive premium.

While there’s no confusion about the nature of its products, Lorillard’s (LO) recent share decline, while not offering certainty of its end, does offer a more reasonable entry point for a company that offers attractive option premiums even when its very healthy dividend is coming due. Like Sears Holdings, Lorillard only offers monthly option contracts, but in this case I have no reservations about holding shares for a longer time period if not assigned.

Conoco Phillips (COP) has been eclipsed in my investing attention by the enormous success of its spin-off Phillips 66 (PSX), but had never fallen off my radar screen. While waiting for evidence that the same will occur to Phillips 66 through its own subsequent spin-off of Phillips 66 Partners (PSXP), my focus has returned to the proud parent, whose shares appear to be ready for some recovery. However, with a dividend likely during the February 2014 option cycle, I don’t mind the idea of shares continuing to run in place and generate option income in a serial manner.

Perhaps not all retailers are in the same abysmal category. Lowes (LOW), while not selling much in the way of fashions or accessories and perennially being considered an also ran to Home Depot, goes ex-dividend this week and has traded reliably at its current level, making it a continuing target for a covered option strategy. I’ve owned in 5 times in 2013, usually for a week or two, and wonder why I hadn’t owned it more often. Following its strong close to end the week I would like to see a little giveback before making a purchase. Additionally, since the ex-dividend date is on a Friday, I’m more likely to consider selling an option expiring the following week or even February, so as to have a greater chance of avoiding early assignment of having sold an in the money option.

Whole Foods (WFM) also goes ex-dividend this week, but its paltry dividend alone is a poor reason to consider share ownership. However, its inexplicable price drop after having already suffered an earnings related drop makes it especially worthy of consideration. While I already own more expensively priced shares and often use lesser priced additional lots in a sacrificial manner to garner option premiums to offset paper losses, I’m inclined to shift the emphasis on share gain over premium at this price level. Reportedly Whole Foods sales suffered during the nation wide cold snap and that may be something to keep in mind at the next earnings report when guidance for the next quarter is offered.

Although earnings season will be in focus this week, especially with big money center banks all reporting, I have no earnings selections this week. Instead, I’m thinking of adding shares of Alcoa (AA) which had fared very nicely after being dis-invited from membership in the DJIA and not so well after leading off earnings season on Thursday.

While I typically am niot overly interested in longer term oiutlooks, CEO Klaus Kleinfeld’s suggestion that demand is expected to increase strongly in 2014 could help to raise Alcoa’s margins. Even a small increase would be large on a percentage basis and could easily be the fuel for shares to continue their post DJIA-explusion climb.

Finally, I was a bit confused as Verizon’s (VZ) shares took off mid-day last week and took it beyond the range that I thought my shares wouldn’t be assigned early in order to capture the dividend. In the absence of news the same didn’t occur with shares of AT&T which was also going ex-dividend the next day and other cell carriers saw their shares drop. In hindsight, the drop in shares the next day, well beyond the impact of dividends, was just as confusing. Where there is certainty, however, is that shares are now more reasonably priced and despite their recent two day gyrations trade with low volatility compared to the market, making them a good place to park money for the defensive portion of a portfolio.

Traditional Stocks: Bed Bath and Beyond, Conoco Phillips, L Brands, Lorillard, Target, Verizon

Momentum Stocks: Alcoa, Sears Holdings

Double Dip Dividend: Lowes (ex-div 1/17), Whole Foods (ex-div 1/14)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: none

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. The above selections may become actionable, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts, in adjustment to and consideration of market movements. The overriding objective is to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.