Weekend Update – July 20, 2014

While I don’t necessarily believe that space aliens will descend upon us with laser rays blazing, there’s reason to increasingly believe that possibility as we learn more and more about the existence of conditions elsewhere in the universe that may be compatible with sustaining life.

Still, even with that knowledge, I don’t let it control my life and quite frankly will probably never do anything that in any way is impacted by the thought of an encounter with an alien.

The principle reason for not elevating the alarm level is that there is no point in history to serve as an example. The pattern of life on earth has been so far devoid of such occurrences, as best we know. Right now, that’s good enough for me.

However, I just don’t completely discount the possibility, because I believe that it’s of a very low probability. Besides, the vaporization process would be so swift that there would be no time for remorse or regrets. At least that’s what I expect.

By the same token I don’t expect a complete meltdown in the market, even though I know it has and can, likely occur again. Despite its probability of occurrence and my belief of that probability, I’m not really prepared for one if it were to occur, even with the extraordinarily low cost of portfolio protection. The chances of a complete meltdown, as we know, is probably more likely to occur in the near term than the prospect of laser waving aliens in our lifetimes.

For all practical purposes one is a real probability and the other isn’t, yet they aren’t necessarily placed into different risk categories at the moment.

This week’s events, however, served as a reminder that the unexpected should always be expected. With the nice rebound on Friday from Thursday’s news of the tragic downing of the civilian Malaysian airplane, the lesson may be lost, however.

One thing that we seem to have forgotten how to do in the past 5 years is to expect the unexpected. Instead our expectations have been fueled by the relentless climb higher and a feeling of invincibility. To a large degree that feeling has been justified as every attempt to fight back against the gains has been stymied in quick and due course.

I probably wasn’t alone in having that invincible feeling way back in 2007. The vaporization process was fairly swift then, as well.

Even when faced with challenges that in the past would have sent markets tumbling, such as international conflict, we haven’t seen the application of age old adages such as “do not stay long going into a weekend of uncertainty.” This Friday’s market rebound was another example in a long string of uncertainty being expected to not lead to the unexpected.

In essence with the certainty of an ever climbing market having become the new reality there’s been very little reason to exercise caution, or at least to be prepared to act in a cautious manner in the expectation that perhaps the unexpected will occur.

Our minds are wired to like and identify patterns. That’s certainly the strategic basis for stock trading for many. Predictability brings a degree of comfort, but too much comfort brings complacency. The prevailing pattern simply argues against the unexpected, so we have discounted its probability and to a large degree its possibility.

While we may be correct in discounting complete market meltdowns, as their occurrence is still relatively uncommon, that complacency has us discounting intermediate sized moves that can easily come from the unexpected. The world is an increasingly complex and inter-connected place and as seen in the past week there needn’t be advanced warning signs for any of an infinite number of unexpected events to occur.

We did get lucky this past week, but we probably expected the luck to continue if the unexpected did strike. What would really be unexpected would be to draw a lesson from our fragility standing near market highs.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum or “PEE” categories. With many companies reporting earnings this coming week a companion article, “Taking a Gamble with Earnings,” explores some additional potential trades.

As Thursday’s trading was coming to its close at the lows of the session more and more stocks were beginning to return to what seemed to be more reasonable trading levels.

The problem, of course, is dealing with the unexpected and trying to predict what comes next when there are really no data points to characterize what we’ve seen. Someday when we look back at these events and the market impact we may see a pattern, but at the moment the question will be “which pattern?” Is it one that’s simply a blip and short-lived as the event itself is self-limiting or is the pattern consistent with the beginning stages of what is to become an ongoing and escalating series of events that serve to erode confidence and place continuing strains on the market?

In other words, did we just witness a typical over-reaction and subsequent rebound or are we ready to witness a correction?

I think its the former, but it opens the possibility of additional incidents and escalation of hostilities in a part of the world that is far more meaningful to the world’s economies than unheralded internecine conflicts occurring in so many other places.

Interestingly, with that kind of backdrop, this week, while we begin to sort out what the short term holds, “Momentum” kind of stocks, particularly those with little to no international exposure in the hotbed areas, may be more conservative choices than the more Traditional selections.

While I like British Petroleum (BP), General Electric (GE) and Deere (DE) this week, predominantly due to their recent price drops, there is certainly reason to be wary of their exposure to parts of the world in conflict.

British Petroleum certainly has known interests in Russia and could be at unique risk, however, I believe that we will be seeing a lesser chest thumping Russia in the near term as there is some reason to believe that existing sanctions and perhaps expanded ones are beginning to get attention at the highest levels. Above all, pragmatism would dictate not injuring the source of hard currency.

I’ve been waiting a while to re-purchase shares of British Petroleum and certainly welcome any opportunity, even if still at a price higher than my last entry. With earnings scheduled to be reported July 29, 2014 and a healthy dividend sometime during the August 2014 option cycle there may be opportunities over the coming weeks with these shares to generate ongoing income.

General Electric reported its earnings this past Friday and also announced the impending IPO of its consumer finance business. The market was unimpressed on both counts.

I haven’t owned shares of General Electric with the frequency that it deserved. With a generous and increasing dividend, price stability, low beta and decent option premiums, it certainly has had the appeal for ownership, perhaps even using longer term option contracts to better  lock in some of those dividends. While it has significant international exposure the recent price weakness makes entry a little less risky, but even with the quality and size of General Electric unexpected bumpy rides can be possible when uncontrollable events create investor fear.

Deere is simply finally down to the price level that in the past was my upper range for purchase. With Caterpillar (CAT) reporting earnings later this week and trading near its 52 week high, there is room on the downside, as well as some trickle down to Deere shares. However, with Joy Global’s (JOY) recent performance, my anticipation is that Caterpillar’s Chinese related revenues will be enough to satisfy traders and offer some protection to Deere, as well.

On the Momentum side of the equation this week are Best Buy (BBY), Las Vegas Sands (LVS) and YUM Brands (YUM).

While Las Vegas Sands and YUM Brands certainly have international exposure, at the moment if you had to choose where to place your overseas bets, China may be relatively insulated from the unexpected elsewhere in the world.

Both companies are coming off weak earnings reports and the markets reacted accordingly. Both, however, have been very resilient to declines and finding substantive support levels in the past. With some shares of Las Vegas Sands recently assigned at current levels I would look for opportunity to re-purchase them. It’s volatility offers generous option premiums and the availability of expanded weekly options makes it easier to consider rollover opportunities in the event of unexpected price drops in order to wait out any price rebound, which has been the expected pattern.

YUM Brands is, like Deere, finally approaching the upper range of where I have purchased shares in the past. While I would like to see them even lower, I think that due to its dependence on the Chinese economy and market it may be a relative out-performer in the event of internationally induced market weakness.

Best Buy, unlike YUM Brands and Las Vegas Sands, has recently been on an upward price trajectory. I liked it much better when it was trading in the $26 range, but I believe it still has further upside potential in its slow climb back after unexpectedly bad earnings news 6 months ago. It too has an attractive option premium and a dividend and despite its recent price climb higher has come down nearly 5% in the past two weeks.

I have never purchased shares of Pandora (P) before, but love its product. At the moment I don’t particularly have any great desire to own shares, but Pandora does report earnings this week and is notable for its 10.8% implied price move. In the meantime a 1% ROI can be achieved at a strike price that is 16.4% below the current price. Those are the kind of characteristics that I like to see when considering what may otherwise be a risk laden trade.

Pandora has certainly shown itself capable of making very large earnings related moves and it is also certainly in the cross hairs of other and bigger players, such as Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG). However, even a scathing critic, TheStreet’s Rocco Pendola, has recently commented that its crushing defeat at the hands of those behemoths is not guaranteed.

Expected, maybe, but not guaranteed.

Facebook (FB) is also reporting earnings this coming week and in the two years that it has done so has predominantly surprised to the upside as it has quickly lived up to its vow to monetize its mobile strategy.

With an implied price move of 7.6% the strike level necessary to generate a 1% ROI through the sale of puts is 8.7% below Friday’s closing price. While shares can certainly make a move much larger than what is expected by the option market, in the event of an adverse move Facebook has some qualities that makes it an easier put option position to manage in the effort to avoid assignment.

It trades expanded weekly options and it does so with liquidity and volume, thereby having relatively narrow bid and ask spreads, even for deep in the money options.

Sooner or later, though, the expectation must be that earnings expectations won’t be met. I wouldn’t discount that possibility, although I think the options market may have done so a bit, so in this case I would be more inclined to consider the sale of puts after earnings, if share price drops on a disappointing report.

Finally, Apple reports earnings this week. It doesn’t really fulfill the criteria that I used when considering the sale of puts prior to earnings, in that it doesn’t appear that a 1% ROI can be achieved at a strike level outside of the range defined by the option market when calculating the “implied move.”

It’s probably useless trying to speculate on sales numbers or guidance. Based on its usual earnings related responses in the past, you would be justified in believing that the market had not expected  the news. However, this quarter the implied move is on the small side, at only 4.5%, suggesting that not much in the way of a surprise is expected next week.

With the current option pricing, the sale of Apple puts doesn’t meet my criteria, but I would again be interested in considering either the sale of puts after earnings, if the market’s response is negative or the outright purchase of shares and sale of calls, in anticipation of an ex-dividend date coming up in early August.

Sometimes it’s just easier dealing with the expected.

Traditional Stocks:  British Petroleum, Deere, General Electric

Momentum: Best Buy, Las Vegas Sands, YUM Brands

Double Dip Dividend: none

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Apple (7/22 PM), Facebook (7/23 PM), Pandora (P)

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.

Taking a Gamble with Earnings

The coming week stands to be a busy one as about 150 of the S&P 500 stocks will be reporting their quarterly earnings.

While earnings had gotten off to a good start last week with a strong showing from those in the financial sector, the market’s initial optimism was tempered a bit during the first day Janet Yellen’s Humphrey-Hawkins testimony and was sent into a pall with news of the tragic downing of a Malaysian civilian plan over the disputed Ukraine – Russian border area.

Regardless of the direction a stock’s price takes upon the earnings parade that also includes forward guidance there is often opportunity to profit from either the expected or unexpected news that’s delivered.

Whenever I ponder whether an earnings related trade is worth consideration I let the option market’s measure of the “implied price move” serve to determine whether there is a satisfactory risk-reward proposition. That calculation provides a price range in which projected price movements are thought to be likely.

If selling options, whether as part of a covered call strategy or through the sale of puts, there may be opportunity to achieve an acceptable premium even though if it represents a share price outside of the bounds set by the option market. Of course, that does depend to some degree on your own definition of “acceptable” and what you believe to be the appropriate level of risk to accompany that reward.

This coming week there appears to be a number of stocks that may warrant some attention as the reward may be well suited to the risk for some, as premiums tend to be heightened before known events, such as earnings.

A unifying theme for stocks that satisfy my criteria of offering a 1% or greater premium for a weekly option at a strike price outside of the boundary defined by the implied move calculation is underlying volatility. While already heightened due to impending earnings release and the uncertainty that accompanies the event, stocks that typically satisfy the criteria I’ve selected are already quite volatile.

While the implied volatilities may sometimes appear to be high, they are often consistent with past history and such moves are certainly within the realm of probability. That knowledge should serve as a warning that the unthinkable can, and does, happen.

While individuals can set their own risk-reward parameters, I’m very satisfied with a weekly 1% ROI.  The other part of the equation, the risk, is less quantitative. It is merely a question of whether the necessary strike level to achieve the reward is above or below the lower boundary defined by the stock’s implied move. 

I prefer to be below that lower boundary.

Among the companies that I am considering this coming week are Apple (AAPL), Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF), Comcast (CMCSA), Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), Facebook (FB), Freeport McMoRan (FCX), Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), Microsoft (MSFT), Pandora (P) and VMWare (VMW).

The basis for making any of these trades is entirely predicated upon what may be an inefficiency between the option premiums and the implied price movement. I give no consideration to fundamental nor technical issues and would prefer not to be in a position to take ownership of shares in the event of an adverse price move.

My preference when selling put contracts is to do so when shares have already been falling in price in advance of earnings. Given the flourish with which this past week ended that is a bit more difficult, as a number of the shares listed had sizable gains in the session, recovering from the previous day’s drops.

While I would prefer not to take ownership of shares, the investor must be prepared to do so or to attempt to manage the options contract, such as rolling it forward, if assignment appears inevitable.

During periods of low volatility it may sometimes be difficult to do so and achieve a meaningful additional premium without going out further in time than you may have envisioned, however.

The table above may be used as a guide for determining which of these selected companies meets risk-reward parameters. Re-assessments need to be made as prices and, therefore, strike prices and their premiums may change. Additionally, the target ROI may warrant being changed as time erodes. For example, if the trade is executed with only 4 days of time remaining on the contract the 1% ROI may find its equivalent in a 0.8% return.

While the list can be used prospectively there may also be occasion to consider put sales following earnings in those cases where shares have reacted in an extremely negative fashion to earnings or to guidance. If you believe the response was an over-reaction to the news there may then be opportunity to sell put options to take advantage of the negative sentiment that may be reflected in option premiums.

In such a case the sale of a put is a bullish sentiment and there may be opportunity to make that expression a profitable one as the over-reaction faces its own correction. My recent observation, however, is that it seems to be taking longer and longer to see some stocks mount meaningful recoveries after earnings disappointments, which I interpret as a bearish indicator for the market as a whole, as risk aversion is a priority.

Recently, I’ve spent some considerable time in managing some positions that had greater than anticipated price moves, including taking assignment and then managing the  position through the sale of call options.

Ultimately, regardless of the timing of an earnings related trade there is always opportunity when large price movements are anticipated, especially if those worst and best case scenarios aren’t realized.

Best of all, if the extreme scenarios are realized a nimble trader may have opportunity to create even more opportunities and allow the position to accumulate returns while doing so.

 

Weekend Update – March 3, 2013

Sequester This.

Despite being a reasonably smart guy, I’ve never understood how to play the game of “craps.” It’s too fast, there are too many possible decisions and when you get right down to it, it’s name is probably based on something that aptly describes something you’d rather not touch or taste. A name like that should serve as fair warning to stay away. Sometimes a glance at the people playing the game sends the same message.

Not that a word like “sequester” is any better. The very sound of “sequestration” makes me want to cringe as I think about what my poor dachshund had to endure. It’s probably almost as bad as what the individual investor has to endure on a maddeningly frequent basis as markets whipsaw for no apparent reason, yet there’s never a shortage of reasons to explain the unexplainable. At least the dog never required an explanation and eventually went on his way, fully healed from the experience. I can’t say the same thing about my portfolio.

The events that spurred the past week’s early sell-off was by all accounts equal parts Italy, Federal Reserve and Sequestration. Later in the week, as the market was knocking at the gates of 2007’s record levels it was Italy, the Federal Reserve and the lack of interest in the Sequestration that were responsible for the turn of events.

What’s not to understand?

Just a few months earlier the new year’s gains were said to be due to averting the Fiscal Cliff. You may or may not recall the gyrations the market took as competing elected officials decided to vent and spew as they raised and then dashed hopes of a meaningful resolution and simply played craps with other people’s portfolios. Since we’ve all learned that ethical guidelines regarding investment portfolios of elected officials are rather lax, you had to wonder just how the “house” odds were stacked in their game of craps.

This time around as the Sequestration deadline loomed the market just kept chugging along higher. It’s hard to understand that as it seems that there can only be a downside, regardless of whether a resolution is reached or not, unless it becomes clear that there really is no danger posed by this thing they’ve called “The Sequester.”

It seems odd that many are taking great pains to paint frightening and untenable outcomes if the sequestration becomes reality. Yet no one seems to care. Not the man on the street, who based on his knowledge of geography can’t possibly have any idea of what the sequestration is, nor the markets.

To me, the ultimate game of craps was being played this week, as no one really knows what either outcome to this most recent crisis will bring the economy or the markets. Yet that didn’t stop concerned parties from dueling press conferences and then abandoning Washington, DC prior to the deadline and prior to an agreement. Most of all, it didn’t end money pouring into stocks and pushing them higher and higher.

Couple that uncertainty with the certainty that myriads of people beginning to foam at the corners of their mouths felt as we got tantalizingly closer to the heights of 2007. That’s precisely how storms are created.

Just as there were dueling certainties, we also had dueling countdown clocks this past week. Nothing good ever comes of those clocks, whether for the sequestration deadline or Dow points until 14164.

Option to Profit subscribers know that I’ve been unusually dour the past week or two out of concern for a repeat of 2012’s market month long 9% drop. The course that we’re following currently seems eerily familiar.

With that personal concern it’s somewhat more difficult to select stock picks for the coming week, particularly while also looking for opportunities to raise cash positions in preparation for bargains ahead.

However, as Jim Cramer has long said, “there’s always a bull market somewhere.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but there’s always a strategic approach to fit every circumstance.

In this case, while I strongly favor weekly options, where they are available, concerns regarding a quick and sharp downturn lead me to look more closely at monthly or even longer option opportunities in an attempt to still put money to work but to not be left empty handed after expiration of a weekly contract, while then holding a greatly devalued position. The longer term contracts, although perhaps offering lower time adjusted ROIs, do offer some opportunity to assure premium flow for more than a single week and do allow for greater time to ride out any storms.

The week’s selections are categorized as either Traditional, Momentum, Double Dip Dividend or “PEE” and include a look at premiums derived from selling weekly, remaining March 2013 options or April 2013 options (see details).

Deere (DE) was on my list last week, as well. But like most items on the list last week, it remained unpurchased as my cautionary outlook was already at work. In the past month Deere has already had a fairly big drop compared to the S&P 500. I don’t see very much sequester related risk with a position right now, but Deere does have a habit of getting dragged along with others reacting to bad industrial news.COF

Citibank (C) was also on the list last week, but was replaced by Morgan Stanley (MS) as one of the few trades of the week. Although I’m expecting some market challenges ahead, I don’t believe that the decline will be lead by financials, which have already been week of late. If the sequestration occurs and some of the forecasted job cuts become reality, in the short term, I would expect the credit side of Capital One’s (COF) business to benefit. I’ve had Capital One on my wish list in the past, but haven’t bought shares for quite a while, as its monthly only options premiums were always off putting. Now that there are weekly options available, it seems strange that I’d be looking more toward the security provided by the longer term contracts.

With all of the dysfunction at JC Penney (JCP) and Sears’ (SHLD) ambivalence about its position in retail, Kohls (KSS) is just a solid performer. Its been in the news lately, including the rumor category. My shares were recently assigned, but as earnings are out of the way and price is returning to the comfort range, Kohls, too, is another of the boring, but reliable stocks that can be especially welcome when all else is languishing.

Although I own Williams Companies (WMB) with some frequency, I’m not certain that I can refer to it as one of my “favorites.” It’s performance while holding it is usually middling, but sometimes it’s alright to be just average. Williams does go ex-dividend this week and is also in my comfort zone with its current price.

YUM Brands (YUM) is one of those stocks that seem to have a revolving door in my portfolio. It is probably as responsive to analysts interpretation of events as any stock that I’ve seen and it typically finds its way back to where it started before the poorly conceived interpretations were unleashed on the investing public. I had wanted to pick up shares last week to replace those assigned the week prior, but simply valued cash more.

Praxair (PX) is just a boring company whose big gas tanks are ubiquitous. Sometimes boring companies are just the right tonic, when the stresses of a falling market are prevailing, at least in my mind. Making a dividend payment this week makes it less boring and perhaps it still has enough helium on hand to resist falling.

Pandora (P) reports earnings this week and it is fully capable of moving 25% on that event. At the moment, the options market is factoring in approximately a 16% move. AT it’s current price, I would strongly consider taking chances of receiving a 1+% ROI in return for seeing a 25% or less price drop.

On a positive note, we can draw a parallel from an astute observation from more than a century ago. Since “everything that can be invented has been invented,” there was clearly no future need for the Patent Office. So too, with the passing of the Sequestration, there can be no other unforeseen man made fiscal crises possible, so it should all be milk and honey going forward. Don’t let the higher volatility fool you into believing otherwise.

Traditional Stocks: Deere, Capital One, Kohls

Momentum Stocks: Citibank, YUM Brands

Double Dip Dividend: Williams Company (ex-div 3/6)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Pandora (3/7 PM)

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. Some of the above selections may be sent to Option to Profit subscribers as actionable Trading Alerts, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts. Alerts are sent in adjustment to and consideration of market movements, in an attempt to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.

Some of the stocks mentioned in this article may be viewed for their past performance utilizing the Option to Profit strategy.