Weekend Update – March 15, 2015

Anyone who has seen the classic movie “Casablanca” will recall the cynicism of the scene in which Captain Renault says “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” seconds before the croupier hands him his winnings from earlier.

This week, the Chief Global Investment Strategist of Blackrock (NYSE:BLK) in attempting to explain a sell-off earlier in the week said “You’ve got the dollar up about 23 percent from the summer lows, and people are realizing this is starting to bite into earnings.”

No doubt that a stronger US Dollar can have unwanted adverse consequences, but exactly what people was Russ Koesterich referring to that had only that morning come to that realization?

How in the world could people such as Koesterich and others responsible for managing huge funds and portfolios possibly have been caught off guard?

Was he perhaps instead suggesting that somehow small investors around the nation suddenly all had the same epiphany and logged into their workplace 401(k) accounts in order to massively dump their mutual fund shares in unison and sufficient volume prior to the previous day’s closing bell?

Somehow that doesn’t sound very likely.

I can vaguely understand how a some-what dull witted middle school aged child might not be familiar with the consequences of a strengthening dollar, especially in an economy that runs a trade deficit, but Koesterich could only have been referring to those who were capable of moving markets in such magnitude and in such short time order. There shouldn’t be too much doubt that those people incapable of seeing the downstream impacts of a strengthening US Dollar aren’t the ones likely to be influencing market direction upon their sudden realization.

Maybe it just doesn’t really matter when it’s “other people’s money” and it is really just a game and a question of pushing a sell button.

This past week was another in which news took a back seat to fears and the fear of an imminent interest rate increase seems to be increasingly taking hold just at the same time as the currency exchange issue is getting its long overdue attention.

While there are still a handful of companies of importance to report earnings this quarter, the next earnings season begins in just 3 weeks. If Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is any reflection, there may be any number of companies getting in line to broadcast earnings warnings to take some of the considerable pressure off the actual earnings release.

The grammatically incorrect, but burning question that I would have asked Russ Koesterich during his interview would have been “And this comes to you as a surprise, why?”

In the meantime, however, those interest rate concerns seem to have been holding the stock market hostage as the previous week’s Employment Situation report is still strengthening the belief that interest rate increases are on the near horizon, despite any lack of indication from Janet Yellen. In addition, the past week saw rates on the 10 Year Treasury Note decrease considerably and Retail Sales fell for yet another month, even while gasoline prices were increasing.

The coming week’s FOMC meeting may provide some clarity by virtue of just occurring. With so many focusing on the word “patience” in the FOMC Statement, whether it remains or is removed will offer reason to move forward as either way the answer to the “sooner or later” question will be answered.

Still, it surprises me, having grown up believing the axiom that the stock market discounts events 6 months into the future, that it has come to the point that fairly well established economic cycles, such as the impact of changing currency exchange rates on earnings, isn’t something that had long been taken into account. Even without a crystal ball, the fact that early in this current earnings season companies were already beginning to factor in currency headwinds and tempering earnings and guidance, should at least served as a clue.

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

Years ago, before spinning off its European operations, Altria (NYSE:MO) was one of my favorite companies. While I have to qualify that, lest anyone believed that their core business was the reason for my favor, it was simply a company whose shares I always wanted to trade.

In academic medicine we used to refer to the vaunted “triple threats.” That was someone who was an esteemed researcher, clinician and teacher. There really aren’t very many of those kind of people. While Altria may represent the antithesis to what a triple threat in medicine is dedicated toward, it used to be a triple threat in its own right. It had a great dividend, great option premiums and the ability to have share appreciation, as well.

That changed once Phillip Morris (NYSE:PM) went on its own and the option premiums on the remainder of Altria became less and less appealing, even as the dividend stayed the course. I found less and less reason to own shares after the split.

However, lately there has been some life appearing in those premiums at a time that shares have fallen nearly 10% in just 2 weeks. With the company re-affirming its FY 2015 guidance just a week ago, unless it too has a sudden realization that its now much smaller foreign operations and businesses will result in currency exchange losses, it may be relatively immune from what may ail many others as currency parity becomes more and more of a reality.

Lately, American Express (NYSE:AXP) can’t seem to do anything right. I say that, as both my wife and I registered our first complaints with them after more than 30 years of membership. Fascinatingly, the events were unrelated and neither of us consulted

with the other, or shared information about the issues at hand, before contacting the company.

My wife, who tends to be very low maintenance, was nearly apoplectic after being passed to 11 different people, some of whom acted very “Un-American Express- like.”

The preceding is anecdotal and meaningless information, for sure, but makes me wonder about a company that received a premium for its use by virtue of its service.

With the loss of its largest co-branding partner to take effect in 2016, American Express has already sent out notices to some customers of its intent to increase interest rates on those accounts that are truly credit cards, but my guess is that revenue enhancements won’t be sufficient to offset the revenue loss from the partnership dissolution.

To that end the investing world will laud American Express for its workforce cutbacks that will certainly occur at some point, and service will as certainly decline until that point that the consumers go elsewhere for their credit needs.

That is known as a cycle. The sort of cycle that perhaps highly paid money managers are unable to recognize, until like currency headwinds, it hits them on the head.

Still, the newly introduced uncertainty into its near term and longer term prospects has again made American Express a potentially attractive covered option candidate, as it has just announced a dividend increase and a nearly $7 billion share buyback.

Based on its falling stock price, you would think that Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) hasn’t been able to do anything right of late, either.

Sometimes your fortunes are defined on the basis of either being at the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time. For the moment, Macao is the wrong place and this is the wrong time. However, despite the downturn of fortunes for those companies that placed their bets on Macao, somehow Las Vegas Sands has found the wherewithal to increase its quarterly dividend and is now at 5%, yet with a payout ratio that is sustainable.

The company also has operating and profit margins that would make others, with or without exposure to Macao envious, yet its shares continue to follow the experiences of the much smaller and poorer performing Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN). That probably bothers Sheldon Adelson to no end, while it likely delights Steve Wynn, who would rather suffer with friends.

With shares going ex-dividend this week and trading near its yearly low, it’s hard to imagine news from Macao getting much worse, particularly as China is beginning to play the interest rate game in efforts to stimulate the economy. The risk, however, is still there and is reflected in the option premium.

Given the risk – benefit proposition, I ask myself “WWSD?”

What would Sheldon Do?

My guess is that he would be betting on his company to do more than just tread water at these levels.

The Gap (NYSE:GPS) fascinates me.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in one of their stores, but I know their brand names and occasionally make mental notes about the parking conditions in front of their stores. Those activities are absolutely meaningless, as are The Gap’s monthly sales reports.

I don’t think that I can recall any other company that so regularly alternates between being out of touch with what the consumer wants and being in complete synchrony. At least that’s how those monthly sales statistics are routinely interpreted and share prices goes predictably back and forth.

The good thing about all of the non-sense is that the opportunities to benefit from enhanced option premiums actually occurs up to 5 times in a 3 month period extending from one earnings report to the next, as the monthly same store sales reports also have enhanced premiums. With an upcoming dividend during the same week as the next same store sales report in early April 2015, this is a potential position that I’d consider selling a longer term option, in order to take advantage of the upcoming volatility, collect the dividend and perhaps have some additional time for the price to recoup if it reacts adversely.

MetLife (NYSE:MET) has been trading in a range lately that has simply been following interest rates for the most part. As it awaits a decision on its challenge to being designated as “systemically important” it probably is wishing for rate increases to come as quickly as possible so that it can put as much of its assets to productive use as quickly as possible before the inevitable constraints on its assets become a reality.

With interest rate jitters and uncertainty over the eventual judicial decision, MetLife’s option premiums are higher than is typically the case. However, in the world of my ideal youth, the stock market would have already discounted the probabilities of future interest rate increases and the upheld designation of the company as being systemically important.

With Intel’s announcement, this wasn’t a particularly good week for “old technology.” For Seagate Technolgy (NASDAQ:STX) the difficulties this week were just a continuation since its disappointing earnings in January. After its earnings plunge and an attempted bounce back, it is now nearly 9% lower than at the depth of its initial January drop.

That continued drop in share price is finally returning shares to a level that is getting my attention. With its dividend, which is very generous and appears to be safe, still two months away, Seagate Technology may be a good candidate for the sale of put contracts and if opening such a position and faced with assignment, I would consider trying to rollover as long as possible, either resulting in an eventual expiration of the position or being assigned and then in a position to collect the dividend.

Finally, for an unprecedented fourth consecutive week, I’m going to consider adding shares of United Continental (NYSE:UAL) as energy prices have recaptured its earlier lows. Those lows are good for UAL and other airlines and by and large the share prices of UAL and representative oil companies have moved in opposite directions.

I had shares of UAL assigned again this past Friday, as part of a pairs kind of trade established a few weeks ago. I still hold the energy shares, which have slumped in the past few weeks, but would be eager to once again add UAL shares at any pullback that might occur with a bounce back in energy prices.

The volatility and uncertainty inherent in shares of UAL has made it possible to buy shares and sell deep in the money calls and still make a respectable return for the week, if assigned.

That’s a risk – reward proposition that’s relatively easy to embrace, even as the risk is considerable.

 

Traditional Stocks: Altria, American Express, MetLife, The Gap

Momentum Stocks: Seagate Technology, United Continental

Double Dip Dividend: Las Vegas Sands (3/19)

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.