Weekend Update – October 25, 2015

There’s an old traditional Irish song “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” that has had various interpretations over the years.

The same title was used for a book about President John F. Kennedy, but in that case, it was fairly clear that the title was referring to the short time in which we had a chance to get to know the 35th President of the United States, whose life was cut down in its prime.

But in either case, both song and book are generally a combination of sadness over hopes dashed, although the song somehow finds a way to reflect the expression of some positive human traits even in the face of betrayal and tragedy.

While hardly on the same level as the tragedies expressed by song and written word, I hold a certain sadness for the short lived period of volatility that was taken from us far too soon.

The pain is far greater when realizing just how long volatility had been away and just how short a chance some of us had to rejoice in its return.

Even though rising volatility usually means a falling market and increasing uncertainty over future market prospects, it drives option premiums higher.

I live on option premiums and don’t spend very much time focusing on day to day price movements of underlying shares, even while fully cognizant of them.

When those premiums go higher I’m a happy person, just as someone might be when receiving an unexpected bonus, like finding a $20 bill in the pockets of an old pair of pants.

Falling prices leads to volatility which then tends to bring out risk takers and usually brings out all sorts of hedging strategies. In classic supply and demand mode those buyers are met by sellers who are more than happy to feed into the uncertainty and speculative leanings of those looking to leverage their money.

Good times.

But when those premiums dry up, it’s like so many things in life and you realize that you didn’t fully appreciate the gift offered while it was there right in front of you.

I miss volatility already and it was taken away from us so insidiously beginning on that Friday morning when the bad news contained in the most recent Employment Situation Report was suddenly re-interpreted as being good news.

The final two days of the past week, however, have sealed volatility’s fate as a combination of bad economic news around the world and some surprising good earnings had the market interpreting bad news as good news and good news as good news, in a perfect example of having both your cake and the ability to eat that cake.

With volatility already weakened from a very impressive rebound that began on that fateful Friday morning, there then came a quick 1-2-3 punch to completely bring an end to volatility’s short, yet productive reign.

The first death blow came on Thursday when the ECB’s Mario Draghi suggested that European Quantitative easing had more time to run. While that should actually pose some competitive threat to US markets, our reaction to that kind of European news has always been a big embrace and it was no different this time around.

Then came the second punch striking a hard blow to volatility. It was the unexpectedly strong earnings from some highly significant companies that represent a wide swath of economic activity in the United States.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) painted a healthy picture of spending in the technology sector. After all, what prolonged market rally these days can there be without a strong and vibrant technology sector leading the way, especially when its a resurgent “old tech” that’s doing the heavy lifting?

In addition, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) painted a healthy picture among advertisers, whose budgets very much reflect their business and perceived prospects for future business. Finally, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) reflected that key ingredient in economic growth. That is the role of the consumer and those numbers were far better than expected.

As if that wasn’t enough, the real death blow came from the People’s Bank of China as it announced an interest rate cut in an effort to jump start an economy that was growing at only 7%.

Only 7%.

Undoubtedly, the FOMC, which meets next week is watching, but I don’t expect that watching will lead to any direct action.

Earlier this past week my expectation had been that the market would exhibit some exhilaration in the days leading up to the FOMC Statement release in the anticipation that rates would continue unchanged.

That expectation is a little tempered now following the strong 2 day run which saw a 2.8% rise in the S&P 500 and which now has that index just 2.9% below its all time high.

While I don’t expect the same unbridled enthusiasm next week, what may greet traders is a change in wording in the FOMC Statement that may have taken note of some of the optimism contained in the combined earnings experience of Microsoft, Alphabet and Amazon as they added about $80 billion in market capitalization on Friday.

If traders stay true to form, that kind of recognition of an economy that may be in the early stages of heating up may herald the kind of fear and loathing of rising interest rates that has irrationally sent markets lower.

In that case, hello volatility, my old friend.

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

As is typically the case when the market closes on some real strength for the week, it’s hard to want to part with cash on Monday when bargains may have disappeared.

Like volatility, those bargains are only appreciated when they’re gone. Even though you may have a strong sense that they’ll be back, the waiting is just so difficult sometimes and it’s so easy to go against your better judgment.

Although the market has gone higher in each of the past 4 weeks, the predominant character of those weeks had been weakness early on and strength to close the week. That’s made a nice environment for adding new positions on some relative weakness and having a better chance of seeing those positions get assigned or have their option contracts rolled and assigned in a subsequent week.

Any weakness to begin the coming week will be a signal to part with some of that cash, but I do expect to be a little tighter fisted than I have in the past month.

If you hold shares in EMC Corporation (NYSE:EMC), as I do, you have to wonder what’s going on, as a buyout offer from privately held Dell is far higher than EMC’s current price.

The drag seems to be coming from VMWare (NYSE:VMW), which still has EMC as its majority owner. The confusion had been related to the implied value of VMWare, with regard to its contribution to the package offered by Dell.

Many believed that the value of VMWare was being over-stated. Of course, that belief was even further solidified when VMWare reported earnings that stunned the options market by plunging to depths for which there were no weekly strikes. That’s what happens when Microsoft and Amazon, both with growing cloud based web storage services, start offering meaningful competition.

With VMWare’s decline, EMC shares followed.

EMC isn’t an inherently volatile stock, however, the recent spike higher upon news of a Dell offer and the sharp drop lower on VMWare’s woes have created an option premium that’s more attractive than usual. With EMC now back down to about $26, much of the Dell induced stock price premium has now evaporated, but the story may be far from over.

Ford Motors (NYSE:F) reports earnings on Tuesday morning and is ex-dividend the following day.

Those situations when earnings and dividends are in the same week can be difficult to assess, but despite Ford’s rapid ascent in the past month, I believe that it will continue to follow the same trajectory has General Motors (NYSE:GM).

There are a number of different approaches to this trade.

For those not interested in the risk associated with earnings, waiting until after earnings can still give an opportunity to capture the dividend. Of course, that trade would probably make more sense if Ford shares either decline or remain relatively flat after earnings. If so, the consideration can be given to seeking an in the money strike price as would ordinarily be done in an attempt to optimize premium while still trying to capture the dividend.

For those willing to take the earnings risk, rather than selling an in the money option in advance of the ex-dividend date, I would sell an out of the money option in hopes of capturing capital gains, the option premium and the dividend.

I sold Seagate Technolgy (NASDAQ:STX) puts last week and true to its natur

e, even when the sector isn’t in play, it tends to move up and down in quantum like bounces. However, with its competition on the prowl for acquisitions, Seagate Technolgy may have been a little more volatile than normal in an already volatile neighborhood.

I would again be interested in selling puts this week, but only if shares show any kind of weakness, following Friday’s strong move higher. If doing so and the faced with possible assignment, I would likely accept assignment, rather than rolling over the put option, in order to be in a position to collect the following week’s dividend.

I had waited a long time to again establish a Seagate Technology position and as long as it can stay in the $38-$42 range, I would like to continue looking for opportunities to either buy shares and sell calls or to sell put contracts once the ex-dividend date has passed.

So with the company reporting earnings at the end of this week and then going ex-dividend in the following week, I would like to capitalize on the position in each of those two weeks.

Following its strong rise on Friday, I would sell calls on any sign of weakness prior to earnings. With an implied price move of 6.6% there is not that much of a cushion of looking for a weekly 1% ROI, in that the strike price required for that return is only 7.4% below Friday’s closing price.

However, in the event of opening weakness that cushion is likely to increase. If selling puts and then being faced with assignment at the end of the week, I would accept that assignment and look for any opportunity to sell call contracts the following week and also collect the very generous dividend.

AbbVie (NYSE:ABBV) reports earnings this week and health care and pharmaceuticals are coming off of a bad week after having had a reasonably good year, up until 2 months ago.

AbbVie, though, had its own unique issues this year and for such a young company, having only been spun off 3 years, it has had more than its share of news related to its products, product pricing and corporate tax strategy.

This week, though, came news calling into question the safety of AbbVie’s Hepatitis C drug, after an FDA warning that highlighted an increased incidence of liver failure in those patients that already had very advanced liver disease before initiating therapy.

I had some shares of AbbVie assigned the previous week and was happy to have had that be the case, as I would have preferred not being around for earnings, which are to be released this week.

As it turns out, serendipity can be helpful, as no investor would have expected the FDA news nor its timing. However, with that news now digested and the knee jerk reaction now also digested, comes the realization that it was the very sickest people, those in advanced stages of cirrhosis were the ones most likely to require a transplant or succumbed to either their disease or its treatment.

With the large decline prior to earnings I’m again interested in the stock. Unlike most recent earnings related trades where I’ve wanted to wait until after earnings to decide whether to sell puts or not, this may be a situation in which it makes some sense to be more proactive, even with some price rebound having occurred to close the week.

The option market is implying only a 5.1% price move next week. Although a 1% ROI may be able to be obtained at a strike level just outside the bounds defined by the option market, I would be more inclined to purchase shares in advance of earnings and sell calls, perhaps using an extended option expiration date, taking advantage of some of its recent volatility and possibly using a higher strike price.

Ali Baba (NYSE:BABA) also reports earnings this week and like much of what is reported from China, Ali Baba may be as much of a mystery as anything else.

The initial excitement over its IPO has long been gone and its founder, Jack Ma, isn’t seen or heard quite as much as when its shares were trading at a significant premium to its IPO price.

Having just climbed 32% in the past month I’d be reluctant to establish any kind of position prior to the release of earnings, especially following a 6.6% climb to close out this week.

Even if a sharp decline occurs in the day prior to earnings, I would still not sell put options prior to the report, as the option market is currently implying only an 8.5% move at a time when it has been increasingly under-estimating the size of some earnings related price moves.

However, in the event of a significant price decline after earnings some consideration can be given to selling puts at that time.

Finally, Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) was my most frequent trade of 2014 and very happily so.

2015, however, has been a very different situation. I currently have a single lot of puts at a far higher price that I’ve rolled over to January 2016 in an attempt to avoid assignment of shares and to wait out any potential stock recovery.

That wait has been far longer than I had expected and January 2016 is even further off into the future than I ever would have envisioned.

With the announcement that Jack Dorsey was becoming the CEO, there’s been no shortage of activity that is seeking to give the appearance of some kind of coherent strategy to give investors some reason to be optimistic about what comes next.

What may come next is something out of so many new CEO playbooks. That is to dump all of the bad news into the first full quarter’s earnings report during their tenure and create the optics that enables them to look better by comparison at some future date.

With Twitter having had a long history of founders and insiders pointing fingers at one another, it would seem a natural for the upcoming earnings report to have a very negative tone. The difference, however, is that Dorsey may be creating some good will that may limit any downside ahead in the very near term.

The option market is implying a move of 12.1%. However, a 1% ROI could be potentially delivered through the sale of put contracts at a strike price that’s nearly 16% below Friday’s close.

That kind of cushion is one that is generally seen during periods of high volatility or with individual stocks that are extremely volatile.

For now, though, I think that Twitter’s volatility will be on hiatus for a while.

While I think that there may be bad news contained in the upcoming earnings release, I also believe that Jack Dorsey will have learned significantly from the most recent earnings experience when share price spiked only to plunge as management put forward horrible guidance.

I don’t expect the same kind of thoughtless presentation this time around and expect investor reception that will reflect newly rediscovered confidence in the team that is being put together and its strategic initiatives.

Ultimately, you can’t have volatility if the movement is always in one direction.

Traditional Stocks: EMC Corp

Momentum Stocks: none

Double-Dip Dividend: Ford (10/28)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: AbbVie (10/30 AM), Ali Baba (10/27 AM), Ford (10/27 AM), Seagate Technology (10/30 AM), Twitter (10/27 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.