Weekend Update – April 19, 2015

When I was a kid just about the funniest word any of us had ever heard was “fink.” Way back then that was pretty much the way Mad Magazine felt too, as it used that word with great regularity.

I was stunned the very first time I actually met someone whose last name was “Fink,” but that came only after some giggles. I think the only thing funnier was when I met Morris Lipschitz.

Sadly, I thought that was funny even though it was after college, as it reminded me of the prank phone calls we used to make as kids.

I think “fink” has since fallen out of common parlance. Back then hearing the word “Fink” word evoked the same reactions as today’s kids may experience when hearing a sentence such as “but I do do what you tell me to do.”

I don’t think that’s very funny after the first 20 or so times, but I’ve gained a certain level of maturity over the years.

I don’t know very much with any degree of certainty, but I do know that I’m never likely to meet Larry Fink, the CEO and Chairman of BlackRock (NYSE:BLK).

With more than $4 trillion under management people at least give the courtesy of listening when Larry Fink speaks, even if they may not agree with the message or the opinion. The only giggles that he may get are when people may feel the need to laugh when they’re not certain if he’s joking.

This week, he wasn’t joking, although there were certainly some, at whom his message was directed, that won’t take it seriously or to heart.

I never really thought about Larry Fink very much until this week whenhe said something that needed to be said.

While investors seem to love buybacks and dividend hikes Fink politely said that CEOs were being “too nice to shareholders.”

The most conventional interpretation is that buybacks and dividends may be coming at the expense of future growth, research and investment in the business. It also calls into question whether you really need a CEO and a board to do any long range strategic planning if companies are going to become something on the order of a REIT and just return earnings to shareholders in one form or another while effectively mortgaging the future.

Of course, that also calls into question the role

or responsibility of activists, who now take great pains to distinguish themselves from what used to be called corporate raiders back in the days when I thought the very mention of Lipschitz was hilarious.

They may be more genteel in their ways and they may stick around longer, but so do buzzards as long as there’s still something left on the carcass.

What Fink didn’t directly say was that CEOs and their Board of Directors were being far too nice to themselves at the expense of the future health of their company. Their paydays, both direct and indirect, benefit far more from short term strategies than do shareholders, especially those who are truly investors and not traders.

Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric (NYSE:GE) which has certainly been in the news lately for its own buybacks, may, in hindsight begin to seem like an Emperor without much of a wardrobe. The haze from hot air may have obscured the view, but to his never ending credit, Welch has long criticized incompetent board directors and the roles they may play in the diminution of once great American companies.

Sooner or later the cash needed for buybacks is going to start to dry up, especially when the predominant buying of shares may be at price far removed from bargain share prices.

What then?

It’s difficult to argue that fundamentals have been altered through intervention in the form of buybacks, but that fuel may have peaked with the recent General Electric announcement. It’s hard to imagine, but we may soon get to that point that quarter to quarter comparisons will actually have to depend on real earnings and not simply benefiting from having fewer and fewer shares in the float from one quarter to the next.

The prevailing question, at least in my mind, is where will the next real catalyst come from to drive markets higher. As currency exchange issues have been making themselves tangible as earnings are forthcoming, the impact has, thus far been minimal as we’ve been expecting the drag on earnings.

Prior to Friday’s sell off, the limited earnings reports received where currency was a detrimental factor in earnings and forward guidance was greeted positively, as the news wasn’t as bad as expected.

Fortunately, the market reacted to the expected bad news in a more mature manner than I’ve been known to react to names.

But going higher on less disappointing than expected results is not a good strategy to keep banking on. There has to be something more tangible than things not being as bad as we thought, especially as energy prices may be stabilizing and interest rates moving higher.

Larry Fink has the perfect solution, although it’s a little old fashioned.

Invest in yourself.

That’s sound advice for individuals, just as it is for businesses that care about growth and prosperity.

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

American Express (NYSE:AXP) has not had a very good ride since Costco (NASDAQ:COST) announced that it was terminating its co-branding agreement with them, that allowed it to be the exclusive card accepted at its shopping warehouses. While that may not have been a huge surprise, what was a surprise was just how important of a player Costco may have been in American Express revenues. As a result, those shares have fallen more than 10% in the 2 months since the announcement of the split, which will occur in the first quarter of 2016.

American Express reported earnings this past week and dropped heavily on Friday, having done so before the overall market turned very sour. But buried in the bad news of decreased revenue, that supposedly stemmed from decreased gas sales, was the fact that they don’t anticipate further revenue declines this year.

Based on my perception of recent degradation in customer service, I think that they may have already become cost cutting through workforce reductions prior to the end of their agreement with Costco. SO while revenue may not be growing any time in 2015, the bottom line may end up better than expected.

While there may not be much in the way of growth prospects this year a rising interest rate environment will still help American Express and it is now offering a better option premium than it has in quite some time as uncertainty has taken hold.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) both report earnings this week and both will likely report the adverse impact of a stronger US dollar and provide guarded guidance, but if the past week is any guide the market will be understanding.

Despite the bump received from their new CEO and the bump received from having an activist pushing eBay’s Board’s buttons, Microsoft and eBay respectively have trailed the S&P 500 over the past year.

Microsoft still hasn’t recovered from its last earnings decline, although eBay has, but in the past month has been making its way back toward those near term lows as it may be getting closer to spinning off its profitable PayPal unit having just completed a 5 year non-compete contract with PayPal.

As eBay approaches that lower price level it has returned within the range that I’m comfortable buying shares. While I u

sually consider the sale of puts as the primary way to engage with a stock getting ready to report earnings, I wouldn’t mind owning shares and the enhanced premium offsets some of the added risk of entering a position at this point.

As with eBay, I prefer considering an earnings related trade when shares have already had some downside pressure on shares. While eBay is a better candidate in that regard, Microsoft also has a premium that will also offset some of the earnings related risk. Like eBay, the options market is anticipating a relatively sedate price move, that if correct in magnitude, even if an adverse direction, could be relatively easily managed while awaiting some recovery.

Colgate (NYSE:CL) goes ex-dividend this week and I continually tell myself that I will be someday be buying shares. As a one time Pediatric Dentist it’s probably the least I could do after a lifetime of being the fifth out of those 5 dentists on the panel. But somehow that’s never happened, to the best of my recollection.

While it does have a low beta and isn’t necessarily shares that you buy in anticipation of excitement, if those shares are not assigned during the upcoming week, there is a need to be prepared for earnings the following week and potentially the need for a longer term commitment if earnings disappoint.

I like considering Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) whenever its shares have gotten to the point of having declined 10%. It has done just that and a little bit more in the past month and does it on a fairly regular basis. But in doing so over the past 14 months the lows have been higher as have the highs along the way.

That has been a good formula for considering either adding shares and selling calls or selling puts. In either case the premium has long reflected the risk, but the risk appears to be definable and at lest there aren’t too many currency exchange concerns to cloud whatever issues Best Buy faces as it is currently once again relevant.

Bed Bath and Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY) was on my list last week as a potential candidate to join the portfolio. However, with cash reserves low, it wasn’t a very active week, with only a single new position opened.

This week, despite the sell-off on Friday, I had the good fortune of still being able to see a number of positions get assigned and was able to replenish cash reserves. With a 2.5% decline last week, considerably worse than the S&P 500, Bed Bath and Beyond added to its post-earnings losses from the previous week, as it often does after previous earnings declines. But what it also has done after those declines is to relatively quickly recover.

I think the weakness this week brings us simply one week closer to recovery and while waiting for that recovery the shares do allow you to generate a competitive return for option sales. Because of that anticipated recovery, I might consider using an out of the money option and a time frame longer than a single week, however, particularly as Friday’s market weakness may need its own time for recovery.

Finally, SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK) didn’t disappoint when it announced its earnings this past week. It was certainly in line with all of the warnings that it had given over the past month and may make many wonder whether or not they may be Jack Welch’s new poster child for dysfunction at the C-suite and board levels.

With everyone seeming to pile on in their criticism of the company and calling for even more downward price pressure, I’m reminded that SanDisk has been down this path before and arose for the ashes that others had defined for it.

The year to date descent in share price has been impressive and it is only a matter of great luck that I had shares assigned right before another one of its precipitous plunges.

This one is definitely not one for the faint of heart, but I would consider entering a position through the sale of puts, rolling them over, if faced with assignment. However, with an upcoming ex-dividend date the following week, I’d be more inclined to take assignment if faced with it, collect the dividend and work the call sale side of share ownership.

 

Traditional Stocks: American Express, Bed Bath and Beyond

Momentum Stocks: Best Buy, SanDisk

Double Dip Dividend: Colgate (4/21)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: eBay (4/22 PM), Microsoft (4/23 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.