Abercrombie and Fitch Sets Itself Up for More Disappointment



(A version of this article appears on TheStreet.com)

With low expectations shareholders of Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) were rewarded during Thursday’s after hours trading as it was announced that the company experienced higher than expected sales for the fourth quarter to date.

Embattled CEO and Chairman Michael Jeffries needed a boost after calls for his resignation and having been the recent recipient of Herb Greenberg’s “Worst CEO of 2013 Award.” The 15% surge, if maintained into trading to end the week will leave shares only about 30% below their 52 week high.

Perhaps lost in the translation are the nuances contained in the report that sent shares soaring that may set Abercrombie and Fitch share holders up for more disappointment in the future. Manufactured good news has a way of doing that once reality hits and it is difficult to interpret today’s press release as anything other than a very favorable spin on a company and a personality much in need of spin.

For the period in question, which ended on January 4, 2014, the company actually reported decreased total sales, but found some solace in the fact that its direct to consumer sales were at its highest level of total sales than ever before. Of course, as the total pie shrinks a component may look comparatively better by simply not shrinking as much. The details of the direct to consumer activities was lacking. Its growth, was by all accounts, relative.

While sales were reported to be better than expected they represented a 4% decrease in the United States and a 10% decrease in international sales. Improved guidance was based on the nine week period ending before much of the east coast freeze that is reported to have stalled mall traffic. It’s unclear how nature’s elements will project forward as the first quarter becomes the object of focus. Additionally, reliance on”ongoing cost reduction efforts” is rarely a strategy for growth. Jeffries’ one year contract extension may require something more substantive than smoke and mirrors to further extend the engagement. Marketing the company as “We’re Not Sears” is not likely to provide a prolonged bounce, much as today’s press release may be suspect.

But I don’t really care about any of that, because Abercrombie and Fitch, for all of its dysfunction and sometimes embaarrassing behavior of its CEO, has been one of my favorite stocks since May 2012. During that period of time I’ve owned shares on 18 occasions.

Abercrombie and Fitch hasn’t been a holding for the faint of heart during that period, nor for anyone abiding by a buy and hold strategy.

As a punctuated buy and hold investor, my sales have been dictated by the call contracts I routinely sold on holdings, almost always utilizing in the money or very near the money strike levels.

Abercrombie and Fitch

Perhaps coincidentally the average cost of those shares has been $38.64, which was just slightly higher than the after hours trading peak after its more than $5 climb. During the period in question shares were initiated at $35.15 and soared as high as $55.23 almost a year to the date of that opening position. A perfect market timer could have sold shares at the peak ans achieved a 59% return with dividends.

Not only am I not a perfect market timer, but I’m also not very patient and would have had a hard time holding onto shares for a full year. Instead my shares were held for reasonably short periods of time, other than one lot currently open for 4 months. During that time the cumulative return has been 56% while the shares themselves have appreciated less than 11% from the date of first purchase.

With some of my shares set to expire on Friday January 10, 2014 amd some others the very next week, there is a chance that I will be left with no shares, thanks to a well timed press release.

However, I have no doubts that Abercrombie and Fitch will find a way to undo investor goodwill and will see its price come down. When it does, I will be there, once again, eager to pick up the wounded shares of of a company that would be embarrassed to have me as a customer.

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Double Dipping Dividends

Before I go any further, I know someone is going to say that this idea is ridiculous.

Some other readers will be shocked that I didn’t refer to the classic “Seinfeld” episode. We all know that no one is going to succumb to someone else’s occasional double dip, unless the mayonnaise has already gone south. In that case, it’s the Center for Disease Control’s problem, not yours.

“You can’t possibly get both the dividend and an option premium and expect that you got a great deal on your trade, because the market is efficient and discounts the option premium to reflect the upcoming ex-dividend date.”

Although by the time you read this, today’s Double Dip Dividend recommendation to subscribers, Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) may have already reached its ex-dividend date. No matter. It’s just illustrative and through the modern miracle of quarterly dividends will come down the road again.

At a point that its shares were trading at $34.98 this morning, the $35 May 25, 2012, option premium for a call seller was $0.49. It’s ex-dividend date happens to be tomorrow (May 24, 2012).

For those who do things like calculating ROI for each of their trades, assuming that shares are assigned on Friday, the three-day holding delivers an est. 1.8% ROI after expenses. Note that includes a miniscule, if any, net profit on the underlying shares, while the dividend contributes 0.5%. Is Abercrombie so volatile as to offer a 1.3% option premium for less than three days of holding? Is it in the category of a volatility option, such as Barclays Volatility ETN (NYSEARCA:VXX) or a leveraged short silver ETF, such as ProShares UltraShort Silver ETF (NYSEARCA:ZSL)?

No, it’s just imperfect pricing due to inattention.

The story, in least in the short term, may have gotten even better, as I purchased an additional lot of shares as the market headed downward in the morning. The next lot’s share price was $34.68 and offered a $0.35 dividend and a 2.3% ROI if assigned on Friday.

Investor psychology plays a role in the Double Dip Dividend strategy. But since its really an exploration of option buyers, it’s probably inappropriate to refer to it as “investing.” In fact, the singular focus on quick gains may even make an assessment of psychological overtones impossible, a the irrational may take over from logical behavior.

In the case of dividend paying stocks, an options contract buyer is likely to exercise his option if the underlying shares are well within the money just prior to the ex-dividend date. But that will be so only if it remains in the money after subtracting the dividend payment from the share price near the close of trading. That part of their thinking is logical. Wait until the last minute to exercise and only if there will be profit to also be made on the shares themselves.

Option contract buyers are also consistent, though, in being reluctant to exercise their options well before expiration dates. That’s because, after all, the point is making use of leverage and not shelling out the big bucks to buy shares just to capture a dividend, especially if it means tying down your money for an extended period. An extended period may be defined in terms of hours.

In the Double Dip Dividend strategy the idea is to look for dividend paying situations, purchase shares as necessary, and then sell call options either near the money or in the money. In the most ideal circumstance, you’ll actually make your purchase at a price that is already near the strike price of choice.

But let’s look at Abercrombie once again. What if someone decides to grab the dividend? What then happens to your ROI? In this case, the return for a single day of holding is 1.3%.

There is certainly no shortage of Double Dip candidates. In recent weeks I’ve recommended Williams-Sonoma (NYSE:WSM), International Paper (NYSE:IP), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), British Petroleum (NYSE:BP), Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC).

There is nothing particularly magical about stock selection, other than they should only represent stocks that you wouldn’t mind holding if shares were not assigned. Of course, in that case you then create your additional income streams by selling call options at appropriately chosen strike levels until your shares are assigned. I usually do try to stay away from initiating a purchase if there is an earnings report ready to be released. I prefer certainty to surprises.

Since many dividend paying stocks do not have weekly options available to traders, understanding the psychology component is even more valuable, particularly if the dividend is to be paid early in the option cycle. In such cases, I have held shares that even when deducting the dividend payment were still well within the money, but went unassigned. Who would have predicted? Certainly not someone who believes in efficient pricing models.

To me, logic would have dictated that the option be exercised and then the shares flipped if one didn’t want to be left holding an unleveraged holding. However, there is enough of an option buying population out there that doesn’t think of such things, and may in fact not even pay attention to dividend dates, as they don’t focus on the mundane details that accompany longer-term outlooks.

Their loss can easily become your gain.

Dip in, the salsa is deep.

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Fries and Prejudice

I’ll be the first to tell you that literary references are pretty much wasted on me.

I’m very shallow, poorly read and have little motivation to change my ways, much to the  dismay of Sugar Momma, who these days is happy just to see me change my socks.

She’s pretty much given up on all of the rest, although occcasionally I will agree to see a movie based on a piece of literature, as long as it stars Seth Rogen or Rob Schneider. I may no longer be fully malleable, but I am open to suggestion before I roll my eyeballs.

So no one is more surprised than me that what is considered a literary masterpiece would help to coalsesce some of the thoughts that I had during this very nice Thanksgiving holiday.

Pride and Prejudice.

First of all, it was exceedingly nice Thanksgiving because there was no trading on Thursday, Saturday nor Sunday. Normally, I love any day that the market is open for business, but we all needed a break. What few hours of trading that we did have on Friday, despite coming off 100+ points from the intra-day high, resulted in a mere 25 point loss.

If that’s not a profitable trading session, then I don’t know what is.

Having had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day dinner with family and friends, my two sons and I headed for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers football game that evening.

I’m not much of a football fan, but I was even decked out in a Ray Lewis jersey, as were approximately 20,000 others, although none approached my inherent talent of frightening opponents with a mere sneer.

Since my kids are the social animal that I am not, it was very easy for them to get into the surrounding tailgate culture once we arrived at the off stadium parking lot.

Do I have to remind you that Pride and Prejudice examines the role of environment on behavior?

I was more of an observer.

Among the many things that I noticed at my first tailgate venture was that blue jeans come in a very wide range of waist sizes.

Realizing that there was really no substantive way to turn that observation into a tangible asset, I followed the lead and downed some whipped cream vodka and Baltimore’s best, National Bohemian, also known as Natty Boh beer.

By then, we were ready to enter yet another environment, this one much more highly structured and with highly codified terms of conduct..

The stadium.

But before we went to find our seats, both sons had to go to the Boardwalk Fries concession stand. But not to order anything, although we’d done that plenty of times before, but instead to look and see if Joe D, the co-owner was in house.

Sure enough. He was. Despite the fact that he presided over more than 100 Boardwalk Fries locations, he was right there in the middle of it all, together with his son Joey D and lots of others.

It’s been nearly 5 years, but both kids worked the Boardwalk Fries location in Raven’s Stadium to help raise money for their Fraternity. It was a good relationship. The fraternity brothers hustled a good product and Boardwalk Fries helped to support their fundraising efforts.

The work was also difficult.

But 5 years later both kids sought Joe D out because of good memories of a man that even a wizened set of eyes would recognize as someone who was commited to his product and its quality.

Why else would he leave a comfortable home on Thanksgiving evening to spend it behind a spattering fryolator and frequently unruly stadium customers?

Why? To oversee every aspect of the operation and to make certain that everything was up to the Boardwalk Fries standard, although truth be told, a bunch of happily inebriated football fans aren’t that likely to notice very much.

Boardwalk Fries isn’t exactly a household name. It’s not Amazon, nor is it Apple. But Joe D is Steve Jobs and he is Jeff Bezos. It’s actually repugnant to me to cite a book in my blog, much less two books. But Im certain by now Joe D has put in the requisite 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell defined in “Outliers” as distinguishing the really greats from the schlubs of the world.

They spotted and then called out to Joe D.

He saw the kids and came out from behind the cook area to speak to them. Hugs, sharing memories and stories. The guys eyes actually twinkled.

They really did. And then there were several rounds of hand shakes. You really felt that this guy sincerely cared.

We didn’t buy any fries, after all we were still stuffed, but my family loves a good french fry and still has fond memories of the fries Szelhamos made late in his life, when we were all stunned to learn that he could actually cook.

Joe D seemed to have something that you just don’t seem to see that often. Maybe its just the wizened me talking now, but his pride in his product and business was so blatant. He didn’t have Jobs’ aura or Bezos’ laugh, but he did.

Pride and Prejudice tells a story of development of character and morality.

After watching a great game and a home team win, we came home to enjoy a few days together.

On Friday I had the opportunity to make about 5 or 6 call sales for that day’s expiration, using Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Amazon, Caterpillar, Freeport McMoRan and Mosaic to pick up a few pennies for my troubles and stresses of the past week’s trading.

Once the market closed I stumbled upon Josh Brown’s posting “How do you have so much Time to Blog” on his site “The Reformed Broker“. It was yet another insightful post, but this one really struck a chord with me.

I would actually tell you to follow him on Twitter, but for some inexplicable reason he has me blocked.

Why, Josh, Why. Could Buddy Holly not bring us together?:

Anyway, among the things that he wrote about were his bygone days as a retail stockbroker.

I’ve written on many occasions that I was very fortunate to have worked with a wonderful broker. I really believed that he sought to protect and nurture my interests. We were at the same stage of life as we began a 25 year investing relationship.

Over the years I’d also had some highly contrasting experiences when infidelity resulted in trying some hot young broker or two, just for the thrill of it all. But when my trusted broker so unexpectedly passed away, there wasn’t much to think about. I didn’t think that it would be likely to find another “Bob”. Instead, I thought that it was far more likely that I would find, what Josh Brown so eloquently self-referred to as “a jerkoff retail stockbroker.”

Character and morality.

But it really went beyond that. The brokerage itself had no pride. It’s hard not to be a jerkoff retail broker when you work for a jerkoff retail brokearge house.


Bob had pride, but despite the great example that he had set, I was left with a very deep prejudice against ever using a retail broker again.

Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos obviously had more than pride. They had a great products, business models and vision.

Most of all, they weren’t products of their environments. Instead, they helped to create all new environments. Look, they even refer to Apple as its own “eco-system.” Jobs idea of design was to make it part of its environment while still standing out from its environment.

Amazon is creating a fusion between physical goods and the eponymous cloud. Someday, if Bezos has anything to say about it, that 65 inch 3D LED you just bought won’t even take up space in your media room. It’ll just be somewhere in the cloud, along with your music, milk, burial plots and books.

As I think a bit about Joe D, Jobs, Bezos, Bob and Josh Brown, in addition to the un-named brokers that I referred to, I’m increasingly convinced that every investor needs to take pride in his portfolio and trading acumen. Regardless of what environment helped to form you, what is the chance that environment will put forward someone to take the same level of pride in your portfolio that you can?

Joe D hasn’t turned it over. Maybe someday it will be Joey D who has the same level of pride and commitment. For all I know, he may already have it, but why put Joe D’s talents aside?

Even when not slinging fries he’s slinging life lessons.

Monday is the start of yet another week. This one is being framed by speculation that Germany may leave the EU, the Euro may crumble and that french fries may contain more saturated fats than is recommended.

I choose to be aware of all of those possibilities but to act accordingly.

In this case, “accordingly” means in prejudice to conventional wisdom.

Addendum: A short time after this posting appeared, Mandy Drury of CNBC, interceded on my behalf and I am no longer blocked by Josh Brown on Twitter. He is, absolutely, one of the most refreshing follows on Twitter!!



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Selling a Kidney for Crack

I know that my short term memory is degraded, but I still remember what 2008 was like. It wasn’t very good.

Even if I didn’t remember, I could just dig up an old spreadsheet or look through my Quicken archives and would be reminded of the pain.

Every now and then, even though I don’t pay too much attention to stock charts, I’ll pull up 5 year charts just to see how low we coud sink when times get tough.

Stocks, like people, can sink to unimaginable depths.

Luckily, and totally serendipitously, that was the time that I started a strategy of aggressively selling covered call options and sticking to a relatively tightly controlled universe of stocks, so the pain wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Always solid companies, never any speculative plays.

I’ve always thought of speculative stocks as being Zombies that could come back and devour its master if guard was ever let down.

Back then, though, I also worked for a living and actually made lots of money. In fact, by my estimation obscene amounts, particularly relative to my actual degree of effort.

I like to think of it in mathematical terms, except I’m reminded that the divisor can never be “zero”.

Now, I sit and try to generate income from my holdings by selling and re-selling call options on the portfolio’s holdings. It’s been a really good alternative to the alternative.

As each monthly cycle begins I find myself in an optimistic frame of mind.

This past week, the beginning of the October cycle was no different. In fact, if anything, I was even more optimisitc after coming off an absolutely stunningly good last week of the September cycle.

During that week the market fought back from early day losses on a couple of days and rallied on other days in the face of no news, or even bad news.

Does it get any more bullish than that? Even more so when the markets appeared oversold in previous weeks. Like that wound up coil some people like to use in their attempts at imagery.

Funny how things work out.  I questioned my own sanity based upon last Friday’s rally going into the weekend. There were so many open questions remaining in Europe, I never did understand where the optimism was coming from. Despite that, I was still looking forward to a great month coming and lots of new options income.

Did I mention “funny how things work out?”

Despite the terrible market in 2008, I never felt any desperation, even on a day when I may have lost the equivalent of 200 Color TV’s (using 1964 Color TV Index).on paper. Having a job and employment income was probably a factor in maintaining a calm demeanor.

A few weeks ago, on the day the NYSE commemorated the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we had a 300 point drop, yet it was just an ordinary day as far as drops go. No stress and no worries.

Yesterday and Wednesday had very different feels to them. Sometimes it’s not just about the magnitude, sometimes there’s a qualitatively different feeling. Yesterday, in fact, it was the FOMC report, that led me to believe that they need to measure their words more carefully and perhaps consider “qualitative easing” for a change.

Adjectives can be really hurtful.

Gloom. That’s the feeling. The same kind of feeling back in February 2009, which was the last time we’d had a week like this. It was just a couple of weeks later thatthe “Haines’ Bottom” was called.

I actually shuddered to look at my largely unhedged positions today. Were it not for the plummet in silver and the subsequent rise in the ProShares UltraShort Silver ETF, which slowly has come to be about 9% of my portfolio, there really would have been some frightening numbers .

I actually have images of the short silver ETF’s being my portfolio savior, if we can shave another $3-4 off the price of the metal.

And I don’t really believe in saviors, but am willing to accept delivery from my misery. When I’m knocking on the door, I’ll take all rites.

Just another form of hedging, that’s all.

Unhedged, those shares were really easing the pain. Seems appropriate, as silver is also the antidote to a Zombie attack when forcefully thrust.

But one week into this 5 week options cycle, I was so woefully unhedged that the blows were all full body and the options premium income was much lower than I typically expect. Considering that September was the second worst income month of the year, I was feeling the pinch.

The other night we were watching some show on the National Geographic channel about cocaine. They profiled a Chicago addict who was going through a couple of hundred dollars each day.

Sugar Momma and I both wondered where he was getting the money from and then we found out, even though we both had a clue.

It was from that bad kind of crime that I covered in Wednesday’s blog “7 Reasons Why Criminal Life is Great“.

But sometimes you do what needs to be done. When faced with your personal stress test you do things that you may not be proud of.

So I looked at my babies and I do love them all and wondered which ones to sacrifice in order to generate some income.

Unfortunately, there weren’t any really good prospects. In fact, the only promising position was the UltraShort Silver ETF. Just about everything else was deeply in the red.

Loving all of them equally, but loving the ETF most, it was a difficult decision, but Daddy needed some money.

Sigh. Like an addict going after that crack rock, I sold call options on about 30% of my ETF’s. Almost like Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac for a chance at the unknown.

However, instead of selling in the money or near the money calls, I sold the October 2011 $17 options, at a time when the ETF had already been up about $1.80 to $14.40

Sort of like Abraham using a magician’s trick sword.

I’ve been confident that the metals would realize that gravity was an important contender and haven’t been selling the covered calls in anticipation of that realization.

Until now.

I just needed that fix. It really did feel like selling your last remaining kidney for just one last crack rock.

Self-respect is pretty unimportant.

Dennis Gartman, that ubiquitous CNBC contributor must feel the same way, as he told people to “go out on the street and raise cash”.

I think he was exhorting people to panhandle. I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg is going to be a fan of that strategy. But at least that clears up the question of why Gartman spit on my windshield yesterday morning as I exited the Holland Tunnel.

To his credit, he was the only one out there with a magnetic credit card reader and a Skype connection.

Personally, despite my desperation, I am still the guardian of my dignity and would sooner sell apples or jump out my first floor window.

For a brief moment there was a 100 point climb off the lows when a FInancial Times report was misinterpreted. When the realization came that the report indicated that the European banks needed capitalization yesterday, those 100 points were gone in a flash.

I did take that opportunity to close out sold call option contracts on Transocean and DuPont, in anticipation of some kind of a bounce.

That may be overly optimisitc, as I don’t expect the same kind of week closing rally as we had last week.

But at least I didn’t take it quite to the lengths of the Greek banks.

The fact that Greek banks were offering lakeside villas for every new account deposit in excess of 50 Euros was not likely to create the kind of extra capital hordes that would be necessary to forestall collapse.

Can you imagine the size of the crack rock that it would take for Greece to pass that stress test?

Interestingly, the Greek banks may be in better shape than our very own Bank of America, where a new account deposit of $50 now gets you a major equity position, as shares have now fallen to a new all-time low point.

Moynihan, stop bogarting that crack pipe.

As bad as today was and as regrettable as the actions were, extending the metaphor, at least I can grow a kidney back.

We’ve all done it before and will likely all do it again.

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