Weekend Update – June 28, 2015

To call the stock market of this past week “a dog” probably isn’t being fair to dogs.

Most everyone loves dogs, or at least can agree that others may be able to see some positive attributes in the species. It’s hard, however, to have similar equanimity, even begrudgingly so, toward the markets this week.

What started off strongly on Monday and somehow wasn’t completely disavowed the following day, devolved unnecessarily on Wednesday and without any strong reason for doing so.

In fact, it was a week of very little economic news. We were instead focused on societal news that likely made little to no impression on the markets as a whole, although one sector did stand out.

That sector was health care, as the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act was a re-affirmation of a key component of the legislation and delayed any need to come up with an alternative, while still allowing Presidential contenders to criticize it heading into election season.

That’s a win – win.

It also keeps the number of uninsured at their lowest levels ever and puts more money in the pockets of hospitals and insurers, alike.

That’s another win – win.

While those two are usually on the opposite sides of most health care related arguments investors definitely agreed that the Affordable Care Act was and will continue to be additive to their bottom lines.

There is no health care flag, however.

The “Rainbow Flag” got a big thumbs up last week as the Supreme Court re-affirmed the right to dignity and the universal right to have access to divorce courts. The Court’s decision and its impact on businesses and the economy was a topic of speculation that was designed to fill air time and empty columns in the business section, as it came on a quiet day to end the week.

The Confederate Flag, of course, got a big thumbs down, after 150 years of quiet and thoughtful deliberation over its merits and what it represented. The decision by major retailers to stop sales of items with the Confederate flag on them can only mean that their demand wasn’t very significant and those items will probably be sent overseas, just as is done with the tee shirts of the losing Super Bowl team, so we can expect to see lots of photos of strangely attired impoverished third world children in the future.

And that leaves Greece, the EU, the IMF and the World Bank. For those most part, those aren’t part of our societal concerns, but they do concern markets.

Just not too much this past week.

The European Union was very forward thinking in the design of its flag. Rather than being concrete and having the 12 stars represent its member nations, those stars are said to represent characteristics of those member states. In other words Greece could leave the EU and the flag remains unchanged. Although the symbolism of the stars being arranged in a circle to represent “unity” may have to come under some scrutiny.

The growing realization is that would likely not be the same for the EU itself, as an exit by Greece would ultimately be “de minimis.” Either way, we should get some more information this week, as IMF chief Christine Legarde’s June 30th line in the sand regarding Greece’s repayment is quickly approaching.

It may be too late for a proposed “Plan B” for Greece to prevent default, as the European Union is now in its 86th trimester.

Still, despite a week of little news, somehow it was another week of pronounced moves in both directions that ultimately managed to travel very little from home.

New and existing home sales data suggested a strengthening in that important sector and the revised GDP indicated that the first quarter wasn’t as much of a dog as we all had come to believe. But there really wasn’t enough additional corroborating data to make anyone jump to the conclusion that core inflation was now exceeding the same objective that Janet Yellen had just stated weren’t being met.

So any concerns about improving economic news shouldn’t have led anyone to begin expressing their fears of increased interest rates by selling their stocks.

But it did.

Wednesday’s sell-off followed the news that the revised 2015 first quarter GDP was only down by 0.2% and not the previously revised 0.7%.

That makes it seem as if nerves and expectations for a long overdue correction or even a long overdue mini-correction are ruling over common sense and rational thought.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double-Dip Dividend, Momentum or “PEE” categories.

The coming week is a holiday shortened one and will have the Employment Situation Report coming on Thursday, potentially adding to interest rate nervousness if numbers continue to be strong.

After Micron Technology’s (NASDAQ:MU) earnings disappointment last week it may be understandable why a broad brush was used within the technology sector to drive prices considerably lower on Friday. However, it wasn’t Micron Technology that introduced the weakness. The past two weeks haven’t been particularly kind to the sector.

At a time that I’m under-invested in technology and otherwise very reluctant to commit new funds, the sector has a disproportionate share of my attention in competition for whatever little I’m willing to let go.

With Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) having also recently reported disappointing earnings and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Seagate Technology (NASDAQ:STX) reporting in the next 3 weeks, it may be an interesting period.

While Micron Technology brought up concerns about PC sales, they are more dependent upon those than some others that have found salvation in laptops, tablets and mobile devices.

What was generally missing from Micron’s report, however, was placing the blame for lower revenues on currency exchange, unlike as was just done by Oracle. Micron focused squarely on decreasing product demand and pricing pressure.

That lack of adverse impact from currency exchange is a theme that I’m expecting as the upcoming earnings season begins. Whereas the previous earnings reports provided dour guidance on expectations of USD/Euro parity, the Dollar’s relative weakness in the most recent quarter may provide some upside surprises.

With share prices in Microsoft and Intel having dropped, this may be a good time to add positions in both, as they could both be significant beneficiaries of an improvement in currency exchange, as both await any bump coming from the introduction of Windows 10. I haven’t owned shares of Microsoft for a while and have been looking for a new entry point. At the same time, I do own shares of Intel and have been looking for an opportunity to average down and ultimately leave the position, or at least underwrite some of the paper losses with premiums on contracts written on an additional lot of shares.

While Seagate Technology doesn’t report its earnings until July 15th, following its weakness over the last 7 weeks, I’m considering the sale of puts in the weeks in advance of earnings. Those premiums are elevated and will become even more so during the actual week of earnings. In the event of an adverse price move, there might be a need to rollover the puts to try and avoid or delay assignment. However, at some point in the August 2015 option cycle the shares will be ex-dividend, so a shift in strategy, pivoting to share ownership maybe called for if still short the put options.

While Oracle and Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) don’t report earnings for a while, both have upcoming ex-dividend dates that add to their appeal. In the case of Oracle, it’s ex-dividend date is on Monday of the following week, which opens the possibility of ceding the dividend to early assignment in exchange for getting two weeks of premium and the opportunity to recycle proceeds from an assignment into another income producing position.

Also going ex-dividend on the Monday of the following week is The Gap (NYSE:GPS). It is one of my favorite stocks, even though it rarely seems to be doing anything right these days.

Part of its allure is that it continues to provide monthly sales data and the uncertainty with those report releases consistently creates option premium opportunities usually seen only quarterly for most stocks as they prepare to release earnings.

As long as The Gap continues to trade in a range, as it has done for quite some time, there is opportunity by holding shares and serially selling calls, while collecting dividends, as the company attempts to figure out what it wants to be, as it closes stores, yet announces plans to take over the Times Square Toys ‘R Us location, for those NYC tourists that just have to jet a pair of khakis to remember their trip.

Finally, American Express (NYSE:AXP) goes ex-dividend this week. It has been extremely range bound ever since the initial shock of losing its co-branding relationship with Costco (NASDAQ:COST) in 2016.

My wife informed me this morning that after about 30 years of near exclusive use of American Express, she has replaced it with another credit card. While that’s not related to the Costco news, it is something that American Express will likely be experiencing more and more in the coming months. That may, of course, explain the spate of mailings I’ve recently received to entice continuing loyalty.

While that comes at a cost, that’s still tomorrow’s problem and the market has likely discounted the costs of the partnership dissolution, as well as the lost revenues.

I like the price range and I like the option premium and dividend opportunities for as long as they may persist, but my loyalty to shares may only go for a week at a time.

Traditional Stocks: Intel, Microsoft

Momentum Stocks: Seagate Technology

Double-Dip Dividend: American Express (6/30), Cisco (7/1), Oracle (7/6), The Gap (7/6)

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.

Weekend Update – March 29, 2015

Fresh off of his estate’s victory in a copyright infringement suit, Marvin Gaye comes to my mind this week as I can’t help but wonder what’s going on.

With the Passover holiday approaching this week, I’m also reminded that much of the basis of re-telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is in response to the questions asked by children.

Among the classes of children traditionally described are the wise child, the evil child, the simple one and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.

When it comes to trying to understand the past week I’m feeling a bit more like one of the latter two of those categories, although I still retain the option of holding onto my evil persona.

The week started with the Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve, who coincidentally had been the Governor of the Bank of Israel many years after the exodus, getting some laughs with jokes that maybe only economists would appreciate. However, to his credit he was able to tone down his hawkish sentiments while still staying true to his tenets, but without frightening markets. That was nice to see, as it was his comments just 2 days after Janet Yellen’s congressional testimony that brought an end to the February rally and, perhaps coincidentally, set us on the path for March.

That hasn’t been a very good path for most investors and with only 2 days of trading remaining in the quarter has it threatening to be the first losing quarter in quite a while as we learned that the most recent quarterly corporate profits over the same time period fell for the first time since 2008.

Yet that news didn’t seem to bother markets this morning as they had a rare session ending with a higher close.

With Stanley Fischer putting everyone into a good mood from a dose of Federal Reserve humor all went pretty well to start the week, with Monday looking like it would mark the first time of having two consecutive days higher in over a month. That was the case until the final 15 minutes of trading and then the market just continued in that downward path throughout most of the rest of the week.

But why? Someone, somewhere had to be asking the obvious question that 3 out of 4 categories of children are capable of asking.

What’s going on?

Friday’s GDP data for the 4th Quarter of 2014 showed no change with the economy growing at an annual 2.2% rate. That’s considerably less than projections based upon lower energy prices fueling a resurgence of consumer activity in the coming year, even recognizing that those perceived benefits were theoretically in only their very nascent stages in late 2014.

While the GDP data is certainly backward looking there’s been nothing happening to support that consumer led growth that we’ve all believed was coming.

Corporate profits are falling, retail sales are flat and home sales aren’t exactly setting the economy on fire, all as energy prices are well off their earlier eye popping lows.

So you might think that would all add an arrow to the quiver of interest rate doves, but the market hasn’t been embracing the idea of continuing low interest rates as much as it’s been fearing the prospects of increasing interest rates.

But this week had nothing to fear. Even the most influential of the hawks seemed and sounded accommodating, but the market wasn’t buying it.

This past week, like recent weeks, has made little sense no matter how much you try to explain it. Just like it’s hard to explain how the defendant’s weren’t aware of the existence of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” or that somehow pestilence, boils and locusts rained down upon the Pharoahs.

No matter how you look at it reason is not reigning.

Even a child who doesn’t know how to ask knows when something is going on.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum or “PEE” categories.

I purchased some American Express (NYSE:AXP) shares a few weeks ago shortly after the news of their loss of Costco (NASDAQ:COST) as a co-branding partner. Coincidentally that decision came at the same time as both my wife and I had individual issues with American Express customer service.

With a combined history of more than 65 years of using American Express as our primary personal and business cards, we’ve done so largely for their customer service. My wife, after speaking to almost 15 representatives is ready to give her card the boot and she reminded me that she’s had that card longer than she’s had me, so I should be on notice.

Coming as no surprise, American Express just announced workforce cutbacks that will only serve to weaken what really distinguished them from the rest, but that may be what it takes to start making shares look attractive again as the company substitutes cost savings for revenues.

Fortunately, my shares from a few weeks ago were quickly assigned and now it looks as if another opportunity may be at hand as it has re-traced its bounce from the sizable drop it took when the Costco news was made known. It’s upcoming ex-dividend date this week adds to the attraction as the company is wasting no time in taking steps to offset what are now expected to be significant revenue losses beginning in 2016.

Who knew to ever ask just how important Costco was to American Express?

I purchased shares of Dow Chemical last week in order to capture the dividend. What I wasn’t expecting was the announcement coming Friday morning of their plans to merge a portion of the company with Olin Corporation (NYSE:OLN) while becoming a majority owner of Olin.

Fortunately that announcement waited until Friday morning so that I was able to retain the dividend. Had it come after Thursday’s close and based on the initial price reaction, those shares would have been assigned early.

While Dow Chemical has been somewhat phlegmatic lately as it tracks energy prices, the sale to Olin appears to be responsive to activist Dan Loeb’s desire to shed low margin businesses. This deal looks to be a great one for Dow Chemical and may also demonstrate that it is serious about improving margins.

GameStop (NYSE:GME) reported earnings this past Friday and recovered significantly from its preliminary decline. I was amazed that it did so after watching what appeared to be a very wooden and canned performance by its CFO during an interview before trading began that didn’t seem very convincing. However, shortly after trading did begin shares climbed significantly.

I like considering adding shares of GameStop after a decline, as there is a long history of people predicting its coming demise and offering very rational and compelling reasons of why they are correct, only to see shares have a mind of their own.

I had shares assigned just a week earlier and was happy to see that assignment come right after its ex-dividend date but before earnings. Now at a lower price it looks tempting again, although I would probably hold out for a little bit more of a decline, perhaps approaching Friday morning’s opening lows.

While GameStop has a reasonably low beta you wouldn’t know it if you owned shares, but fortunately the options market knows it and typically offers premiums that reflect the sudden moves shares are very capable of taking.

Up until about 30 minutes before Friday’s close it hadn’t been a very good week to be in the semiconductor business. That may have changed, at least for a moment or two, as it was announced that Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) was in talks to purchase Altera (NASDAQ:ALTR).

Among those stocks benefiting from that late news was Micron Technology (NASDAQ:MU), which has fallen even more than Intel in 2015.

Micron Technology reports earnings this week and is no stranger to large earnings related moves. The options market, however is implying only a 5.5% price move next week. While I normally look for a strike level that’s outside of the range defined by the implied move that offers at least a 1% ROI for the week, this coming week is a bit odd.

That’s because Micron Technology reports earnings after the market’s close on Thursday, yet the market will be closed for trading on Good Friday.

For that reason I would consider looking at the possibility of selling puts for the following week, but would like to see shares give up some of the gains made in response to the Intel news.

While Intel’s late news helped to rescue it from having sunk below $30 for the first time in 9 months, it did nothing for Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) nor Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO). They, along with Intel had been significantly under-performing the S&P 500 this week and for the year to date.

Both Cisco and Oracle are ex-dividend this week and following their drops this past week both are beginning to have appeal once again.

With a holiday shortened week and also going ex-dividend the expectation is that option premiums would be noticeably lower, However, both Cisco and Oracle are offering a compelling combination of option premiums and dividends along with some chance of recovering some of their recent losses.

The real challenge for each may be related to currency exchange and how it will impact earnings. However, barring early earnings warnings, Cisco won’t report earnings for another 7 weeks and Oracle not for another 12 weeks, so hopefully that would allow plenty of time to extricate from a position before the added risk of earnings comes into play.

Finally, I came close to buying shares of SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK) just a couple of days ago, looking to replace shares that were assigned just 2 weeks earlier.

It’s not often that you see a company give earnings warnings twice within the space of about 2 months, but SanDisk now has that distinction and has plunged on both of those occasions.

What SanDisk may have discovered is what so many others have, in that being an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) supplier may be very much a mixed blessing or curse, depending on your perspective at the moment.

While its revenues are certainly being squeezed I’m reminded of a period about 10 years ago when SanDisk was essentially written off by just about everyone as flash memory was becoming to be considered as nothing more than a commodity.

In that time anyone with a little daring would have done very well in that time period with shares nearly doubling the S&P 500 performance.

With a nearly 25% drop over the past few days, even as a commodity or a revenue stressed company, SanDisk may have some opportunity as it approaches its 18 month lows.

As with many other stocks that have taken large falls, I would consider entering a new position through the sale of put options and if faced with the possibility of assignment would try to roll the position over to a forward week in an attempt to delay or preclude assignment while still collecting a premium.

Traditional Stocks: Dow Chemical

Momentum Stocks: GameStop, SanDisk

Double Dip Dividend: American Express (3/31), Cisco (3/31), Oracle (4/2)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Micron Technology (4/2 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.