Weekend Update – February 15, 2015

You would think that when the market sets record closing highs on the S&P 500 that there would be lots of fireworks after the fact and maybe lots of excited anticipation before the fact.

But that really hasn’t been the case since 2007.

The “whoop whoop” sounds you may have heard coming from the floor of the NYSE had nothing to do with pitched fervor, but rather with traditional noise making at 3:33 PM on the Friday before a 3 day holiday.

The whooping noise was also in sharp contrast to the relative calm of the past week and it may have been that calm, or maybe the absence of anxiety, that allowed the market to add another 2% and set those record highs.

After a while you do get tired of always living on the edge and behaving in a hyper-caffeinated way in response to even the most benign of events.

Even back in 2007 as we were closing in on what we now realize was the high point for that year, there were so many records being set, seemingly day in and out, that it began to feel more like an entitlement rather than something special.

You whoop about something special. You don’t whoop about entitlements. There was no whooping on Friday at 4 PM. instead, it was a calm, matter of fact reaction to something we had never seen before. New highs are met with yawns and new heights aren’t as dizzying as they used to be, especially if you don’t look down.

When your senses get dulled it’s sometimes hard to see what’s going on around you, but there’s a difference between maintaining a sense of calm and having your senses dulled to the dangers of collateralized debt obligations or other evils of the era.

This calmness was good.

As opposed to those who refer to pullbacks from highs as being healthy, this calm character of this climb to a new high was what health is really all about. I feel good when my portfolio outperforms the market during a down week, but the end result is still a loss. When I really feel great is when out-performing during an up week.

Both may feel good, but only one is good in absolute terms. From my perspective, the only healthy market is one that is moving higher, but not doing so recklessly.

This week, was a continuation of a month that has characterized by calm events and an appropriate measure of acceptance of those events while moving to greater heights in a methodical way

While it may be good to not see some kind of unbridled buying fervor break out when records are reached, it does make you wonder why the same self control can’t be put on when things momentarily appear dire, as there have certainly been pl

enty of near vertical declines in the past few months that just a little calmness of mind could have avoided.

Coming from the most recent decline that ended in January 2015, the move higher has presented a circuitous path toward Friday’s new high close.

Instead of the straight line higher or the “V-shaped” recoveries that so many refer to, and that have characterized upward reversals in the past few months, this most recent reversal has been a stagger stepped one.

Rather than coming as a burst of unbridled excitement, the market has been taking the time to enjoy and digest the ride higher.

The climb was odd though when you consider that oil prices had been moving strongly higher, retail sales were disappointing, interest rates were climbing and currency troubles were plaguing US company profits. All these were happening as gold, long a proxy for the investor anxiety was gyrating with large moves.

But perhaps it was a sense of serenity and calm from overseas that offset those worrying events. Greece and the European Union appeared to be closer to an agreement on debt concerns and another Ukraine peace accord seemed likely.

The stock market simply decided that nothing could possibly happen to derail either of those potential agreements.

So there’s calmness, dulled senses and burying your head in the sand.

This week the calmness may have been secondary to some denial, but given the result, I’m all for denial, as long as it can keep reality away just a little longer.

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

What surprises me most, particularly considering a portfolio that doesn’t often hold very many DJIA positions, is that this week there are 5 DJIA members that may have reason for garnering attention.

It has been a bit more than two years since I last owned American Express (NYSE:AXP). Up until 2015, if you had looked at its performance in the time since I last owned it and happened to have also been in a vacuum at the time, it looked as if it had a pretty impressive ride.

That impression would have been upset if the vacuum was disrupted and you began to compare its performance to the S&P 500 and especially if comparing it to its rivals.

That ride got considerably more bumpy this past week as it will be losing a major co-branding partner, Costco (NASDAQ:COST) in 2016. While the possibility of that partnership coming to an end had been well known, the market’s reaction suggests that either it was ignored or calmness doesn’t reside when mediocre rewards programs are threatened with extinction.

But a 10% plunge seems drastic. The co-branding effort allowed American Express to dip its toes into the credit card business and deal with normal folks who don’t always pay their credit card charges in full, but do pay interest charges. Given the Costco shopper demographic that seemed like a nice middle ground for risk and reward that will be difficult to replace. However, American Express shares are now on sale, having reached 16 month lows and the excitement injects some life into its option premiums.

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) recovered some of its losses since my last purchase, but not enough to make it within easy striking distance of an assignment.

While it was a great performer in 2014 it has badly trailed the S&P 500 in 2015. While it may be subject to currency crosswinds, nothing fundamental has changed in its story to warrant its most recent decline, particularly as “old tech” has had its respect restored.

While its option premium is not overly exciting enough to consider using out of the money options, there is enough reason to believe that there is some additional potential for price recovery left in its shares to consider not covering all new shares.

Coca Cola (NYSE:KO) continues to be derided and maybe for good reason as it needs something to both change its image of being out of touch with contemporary tastes and some diversification of its product lines.

The former isn’t likely to happen overnight, nor is any revenue related calamity expected to strike with suddeness, at least not before its next dividend, which is expected in the next few weeks. In the meantime, as with Intel, there may be some reason to believe that some price recovery may be part of the equation when deciding to sell calls on the position.

In the cases of DJIA components Johnson and Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and General Electric (NYSE:GE) their upcoming ex-dividend dates this week add to their interest.

Johnson and Johnson, when reporting earnings last month was one of the first to remind us of the darkness associated with a strong US dollar and its shares are still lower, having trailed the S&P 500 by nearly 8% since earnings release on January 20th. Most of that decline, however, has come since the market began its turnaround once February started.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson and Johnson’s option premium has become attractive, even in
a week that has a significant dividend event. As with its fellow DJIA members, Intel and Coca Cola, I would consider some possibility of trying to also capitalize on share appreciation to complement the option premium and the dividend.

General Electric is the least appealing of the DJIA components considered this week as its option premium is fairly small as it goes ex-dividend. However, General Electric is a stock that I repeatedly can’t understand why I haven’t owned with much greater regularity.

It has traded in a fairly predictable range, has offered an excellent and growing dividend and reasonable option premiums for an extended period of time. That’s a great combination when considering a covered option strategy.

Add Kellogg (NYSE:K) to the list of companies bemoaning the impact of a strong dollar on their earnings and future prospects for profits. Down nearly 5% on its earnings and a more impressive 9.6% in the past 3 weeks it also has to deal with falling cereal sales, which likely played a role in analyst downgrades this week. While currencies continually fluctuate and at some point will shift to Kellogg’s benefit, those sagging sales adjusted for currency effect, is a cause for concern, but not right away.

As with American Express that price decline brings shares to a more reasonable price point, well below where I last owned shares less 2 months ago. With an upcoming dividend in the March 2015 option cycle and only offering monthly options, I would consider selling March options bypassing what remains of the February contract in anticipation of some price recovery.

Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has been uncharacteristically quiet since it reported earnings last month, as investor attention has shifted to Twitter (NYSE:TWTR).

Its share price has been virtually unchanged over the past 3 months but its option premiums have remained very attractive and continue to be so, even as it may have recently fallen off investor’s radar screens despite having avoided mis-steps that characterize so many young companies with great growth.

While I generally consider the sale of puts in advance of earnings and frequently would prefer not to take assignment of shares, Facebook is an exception to that preference. While I would consider entering a position through the sale of puts if shares move adversely the market for its options is liquid enough to likely allow put rollovers, or if taking assignment create an easy path for selling calls on the position.

Finally, I don’t really begin to make believe that I understand the dynamics of oil prices, nor understand the impact of prices on the various industries that either get their revenue by being some part of the process from ground to tank or that see a large part of their costs related to energy pricing. I certainly don’t understand “crack spreads” and find myself more likely to giggle than to ask an informed question or add an insight when the topic arises.

United Continental Holdings (NYSE:UAL) is one of those that certainly has a large portion of its costs tied up in fuel prices. While hedging of fuel can

certainly be a factor in generating profits, it can also be a tool to generate losses, as they have learned.

With about $1 billion in hedging related losses expected in 2015 United shares are down nearly 10% since having reported earnings. That’s only fair as its price trajectory higher over the previous months was closely aligned with the perception that falling jet fuel prices would be a boon for airlines, without real regard to the individual liabilities held in futures contracts.

As with energy companies over the past few months the great uncertainty created by rapidly moving prices created greatly enhanced option premiums. With oil prices having significant gains this week but still a chorus of those calling for $30 oil, it’s anyone’s guess where the next stop may be. However, any period of stability or only mildly higher fuel prices may still accrue benefit to those airlines that had been hedged at far higher levels, such as United.

While we think about an “energy sector,” there’s no doubt that its comprised of a broad range of companies that fit in somewhere along that continuum from discovery to delivery. It’s probably reasonable to believe that not all portions of the sector experience the same level of response to price changes of crude oil.

Western Refining (NYSE:WNR) is ex-dividend this week and reports earnings the following week. It’s in a portion of the energy sector that doesn’t suffer the same as those in the business of drilling when crude oil prices are plunging, as evidenced by the refiner’s performance relative to the S&P 500 in 2015.

If previous earnings reports from many others in the sector are to act as a guide, although there have been some exceptions, any disappointing earnings are already anticipated and Western Refining’s report will be well received.

For that reason, I might consider, as with Kellogg, bypassing the February 2015 option contract and considering a sale of the March 2015 contract, which also provides nearly a month for share price to recover in the event of a move lower upon earnings.

Traditional Stocks: American Express, Coca Cola, Intel, Kellogg

Momentum Stocks: Facebook, United Continental Holdings

Double Dip Dividend: General Electric (2/19), Johnson and Johnson (2/20), Western Refining (2/18)

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.