Weekend Update – October 5, 2014

This week’s markets didn’t respond so positively when Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank failed to deliver on what many had been expecting for quite some time.

The financial markets wanted to hear Draghi follow through on his previous market moving rhetoric with an ECB version of Quantitative Easing, but it didn’t happen. After two years of waiting for some meaningful follow through to his assertion that “we will do whatever it takes” Draghi’s appearance as simply an empty suit becomes increasingly apparent and increasingly worrisome.

On a positive note, as befitting European styling, that suit is exquisitely tailored, but still hasn’t shown that it can stand up to pressure.

It also wasn’t the first time our expectations were dashed and no one was particularly pleased to hear Draghi place blame for the state of the various economies in the European Union at the feet of its politicians as John Chambers, the head of Standard and Poor’s Sovereign Debt Committee did some years earlier when lowering the debt rating of the United States.

Placing the blame on politicians also sends a message that the remedy must also come from politicians and that is something that tends to only occur at the precipice.

While the Biblical text referring to a young child leading a pack of wild animals is a forward looking assessment of an optimistic future, believing that an empty suit can lead a pack of self-interested politicians is an optimism perhaps less realistic than the original passage.

At least that’s what the markets believed.

Befitting the previous week’s volatility that was marked by triple digit moves in alternating fashion, Draghi’s induced 238 point decline was offset by Friday’s 208 point gain following the encouraging Employment Situation Report. Whereas the previous week’s DJIA saw a net decline of only 166 points on absolute daily moves of 810 points, this past week was more subdued. The DJIA lost only 103 points while the absolute daily changes were 519 points.

The end result of Friday’s advance was to return volatility to where it had ended last week, which was a disappointment, as you would like to see volatility rise if there has been a net decline in the broader market. Still, if you’re selling options, that level is better than it was two weeks ago.

While Friday’s gain was encouraging it is a little less so when realizing that such memorable gains are very often found during market downtrends. There is at least very little doubt that the market behavior during the past two weeks represents some qualitative difference in its behavior and an isolated move higher may not be very reflective of any developing trend, but rather reactive to a different developing trend.

As with Draghi, falling for the rhetoric of such a positive response to the Employment Situation Report, may lead to some disappointment.

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

Many of the positions being considered this week are recently highlighted positions made more appealing following recent price pullbacks rather than on any company specific factors. Of course, when looking at stocks whose price has recently fallen at some point the question regarding value versus “value trap” has to be entertained.

With some increase in volatility, despite the rollback this week, I’ve taken opportunity to rollover existing positions to forward weeks when expanded option contracts have been available. As those premiums have increased a bit being able to do so helps to reduce the risk of having so many positions expire concurrently and being all exposed to a short term and sudden price decline.

Just imagine how different the outcome for the week may have been if Thursday’s and Friday’s results were reversed if you were relying on the ability to rollover positions or have them assigned.

However, with the start of earnings season this week there’s reason to be a little more attentive when selecting positions and their contract expiration dates as earnings may play a role in the premiums. While certainly making those premiums more enticing it also increases the risk of ownership at a time when the relative market risk may outweigh the reward.

One stock not reporting earnings this week, but still having an enriched option premium is The Gap (GPS). It opens the week for trading on its ex-dividend date and later in the week is expected to announce its monthly same store sales, being one of the few remaining companies to do so. Those results are inexplicably confusing month to month and shares tend to make strong price movements, frequently in alternating directions from month to month. For that uncertainty comes a very attractive option premium for shares that despite that event driven volatility tend to trade in a fairly well defined range over the longer term.

When it comes to their fashion offerings you may be ambivalent, but when it comes to that kind of price movement and predictability, what’s not to like?

If you’re waiting for a traditional correction, one that requires a 10% pullback, look no farther than Mosaic (MOS). While it had been valiantly struggling to surpass the $50 level on its long road to recovery from the shock of the break-up of the potash cartel, it has now fallen about 13% in 5 weeks. Most recently Mosaic announced a cutback in phosphate production and lowered its guidance and when a market is already on edge it doesn’t need successive blows like those offered by Mosaic as it approaches its 52 week low.

Can shares offer further disappointment when it reports earnings at the end of this month? Perhaps, but for those with a longer term outlook, at this level shares may be repeating the opportunity they offered upon hitting their lows on the cartel’s dissolution for serial purchase and assignment, while offering a premium enhanced by uncertainty.

Seagate Technology (STX) is also officially in that correctio

n camp, having dropped 10% in that same 5 week period. It has done so in the absence of any meaningful news other than perhaps the weight of its own share price, with its decline having come directly from its 52 week high point.

For a company that has become fairly staid, Pfizer (PFE) has been moving about quite a bit lately. Whether in the news for having sought a tax inversion opportunity or other acquisitions, it is clearly a company that is in need of some sort of catalyst. That continuing kind of movement back and forth has been pronounced very recently and should begin making its option premium increasingly enticing. With shares seemingly seeking a $30 home, regardless of which side it is currently on and an always attractive dividend, Pfizer may start getting more and more interesting, particularly in an otherwise labile market.

Dow Chemical (DOW) is one of those stocks that used to be a main stay of my investing. It’s price climb from the $40 to $50 range made it less so, but with the realization that the $50 level may be the new normal, especially with activist investor pressure, it is again on the radar screen, That’s especially true after this week’s price drop. I had been targeting the $52.50 level having been most recently assigned at $53.50, but now it appears to be gift priced. Unfortunately, it may be a perfect example of that age old dilemma regarding value, having already greatly under-performed the market since its recent high the “value trap” part may have already been played out.

While MasterCard (MA) is ex-dividend this week, it is certainly not one to chase in order to capture its dividend. With a payout ratio far below its competitors it would seem that an increase might be warranted. However, what makes MasterCard attractive is that it has seemingly found a trading range and is now situated at about the mid-point of that range. While there is some recent tumult in the world of payments and with some continuing uncertainty regarding its presence in Russia, MasterCard continues to be worth consideration, particularly as it too has significantly under-performed the S&P 500 in the past two weeks.

Equal in its under-performance to MasterCard during that period has been Texas Instruments (TXN). I’ve been eager to add some technology sector positions for a while and haven’t done so as often as necessary to develop some better diversification. Along with Intel (INTC) which I considered last week, as well, Texas Instruments is back to a price level that has my attention. Like Intel, it reports earnings soon and also goes ex-dividend during the October 2014 option cycle. Unlike Intel, however, Texas Instruments doesn’t have a couple of gap ups in price over the past three months that may represent some additional earnings related risk.

When it comes to under-performance it is possible that Coach (COH) may soon qualify as being synonymous with that designation. Not too surprisingly its past performance in the past two weeks, while below that of the S&P 500 may be more directly tied to an improved price performance seen in its competitor for investor interest, Michael Kors (KORS). However, Coach seems to have established support at its current level and may offer a similar opportunity for serial purchase and assignment as had been previously offered by Mosaic shares.

Finally, with the exception of YUM Brands (YUM) all of the other stocks highlighted this week have under-performed the S&P 500 since hitting its recent high on September 18, 2014. YUM Brands reports earnings this week and is often very volatile when it does so. This time, hover, the options market doesn’t seem to be expecting a very large move, only about 4.5%. Neither is there an opportunity to achieve a 1% ROI through the sale of a put option at a strike outside of the range implied. However, YUM Brands is one of those stocks, that if I had sold puts upon, I wouldn’t mind owning if there was a likelihood of assignment.

So often YUM Brands share price is held hostage to food safety issues in China and so often it successfully is able to  see its share price regain sudden losses. That, however, hasn’t been the case thus far since it’s summertime loss. There are probably little expectations for an upside surprise upon release of earnings and as such there may be some limited downside, perhaps explaining the option market’s subdued pricing.

If facing assignment of puts being sold with an upcoming ex-dividend date the following week, I would be inclined to accept assignment and proceed from the point of ownership rather than trying to continue avoiding ownership of shares. However, with the slightest indication of political unrest spreading from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland that may be a decision destined for regret, just like the purchase of an ill-fitting and overly priced suit.

Traditional Stocks: Dow Chemical, Pfizer, Texas Instruments, The Gap

Momentum: Coach, Mosaic, Seagate Technology

Double Dip Dividend:  MasterCard (10/7)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: YUM Brands (10/7 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.