Weekend Update – January 3, 3016

The "What If" game is about as fruitless as it gets, but is also as much a part of human nature as just about anything else.

How else could I explain having played that game at a high school reunion?

That may explain the consistent popularity of that simple question as a genre on so many people’s must read lists as the New Year begins.

Historical events lead themselves so beautifully to the "What If" question because the cascading of events can be so far reaching, especially in an interconnected world.

Even before that interconnection became so established it didn’t take too much imagination to envision far reaching outcomes that would have been so wildly different around the world even a century or more later.

Imagine if the Union had decided to cede Fort Sumpter and simply allowed the South to go its merry way. Would an abridged United States have been any where near the force it has been for the past 100 years? What would that have meant for Europe, the Soviet Union, Israel and every other corner of the world?

Second guessing things can never change the past, but it may provide some clues for how to approach the future, if only the future could be as predictable as the past.

Looking back at 2015 there are lots of "what if" questions that could be asked as we digest the fact that it was the market’s worst performance since 2008.

In that year the S&P 500 was down about 37%, while in 2015 it was only down 0.7%. That gives some sense of what kind of a ride we’ve been on for the past 7 years, if the worst of those years was only 0.7% lower.

But most everyone knows that the 0.7% figure is fairly illusory.

For me the "what if" game starts with what if Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and a handful of others had only performed as well as the averages.

Of course, even that "what if" exercise would continue to perpetuate some of the skew seen in 2015, as the averages were only as high as they were due to the significant out-performance of a handful of key constituent components of the index. Imagining what if those large winners had only gone down 0.7% for the year would still result in an index that wouldn’t really reflect just how bad the underlying market was in 2015.

While some motivated individual could do those calculations for the S&P 500, which is a bit more complex, due to its market capitalization calculation, it’s a much easier exercise for the DJIA.

Just imagine multiplying the 10 points gained by Microsoft , the 30 pre-split points gained by Nike (NKE), the 17 points by UnitedHealth Group (UNH), the 26 points by McDonalds (MCD) or the 29 points by Home Depot (HD) and suddenly the DJIA which had been down 2.2% for 2015, would have been another 761 points lower or an additional 4.5% decline.

Add another 15 points from Boeing (BA) and another 10 from Disney (DIS) and we’re starting to inch closer and closer to what could have really been a year long correction.

Beyond those names the pickings were fairly slim from among the 30 comprising that index. The S&P 500 wasn’t much better and the NASDAQ 100, up for the year, was certainly able to boast only due to the performances of Amazon, Netflix (NFLX), Alphabet and Facebook (FB).

Now, also imagine what if historically high levels of corporate stock buybacks hadn’t artificially painted a better picture of per share earnings.

That’s not to say that the past year could have only been much worse, but it could also have been much better.

Of course you could also begin to imagine what if the market had actually accepted lower energy and commodity prices as a good thing?

What if investors had actually viewed the prospects of a gradual increase in interest rates as also being a good thing, as it would be reflective of an improving, yet non-frothy, economy?

And finally, for me at least, What if the FOMC hadn’t toyed with our fragile emotions and labile intellect all through the year?

Flat line years such as 2015 and 2011 don’t come very often, but when they do, most dispense with the "what if" questions and instead focus on past history which suggests a good year to follow.

But the "what if" game can also be prospective in nature, though in the coming year we should most likely ask similar questions, just with a slight variation.

What if energy prices move higher and sooner than expected?

What if the economy expands faster than we expected?

What if money is running dry to keep the buyback frenzy alive?

Or, what if corporate earnings actually reflect greater consumer participation?

You may as well simply ask what if rational thought were to return to markets?

But it’s probably best not to ask questions when you may not be prepared to hear the answer.

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

For those, myself included, who have been expecting some kind of a resurgence in energy prices and were disbelieving when some were calling for even further drops only to see those calls come true, it’s not really clear what the market’s reaction might be if that rebound did occur.

While the market frequently followed oil lower and then occasionally rebounded when oil did so, it’s hard to envision the market responding favorably in the face of sustained oil price stability or strength.

I’ve given up the idea that the resurgence would begin any day now and instead am more willing to put that misguided faith into the health of financial sector stocks.

Unless the FOMC is going to toy with us further or the economy isn’t going to show the kind of strength that warranted an interest rate increase or warrants future increases, financials should fare well going forward.

This week I’m considering MetLife (MET), Morgan Stanley and American Express (AXP), all well off from their 2015 highs.

MetLife, down 12% during 2015 is actually the best performer of that small group. As with Morgan Stanley, almost the entirety of the year’s loss has come in the latter half of the year when the S&P 500 was performing no worse than it had during the first 6 months of the year.

Both Morgan Stanley and MetLife have large enough option premiums to consider the sale of the nearest out of the money call contracts in an attempt to secure some share appreciation in exchange for a somewhat lo0wer option premium.

In both cases, I think the timing is good for trying to get the best of both worlds, although Morgan Stanley will be among the relatively early earnings reports in just a few weeks and still hasn’t recovered from its last quarter’s poorly received results, so it would help to be prepared to manage the position if still held going into earnings in 3 weeks.

By contrast, American Express reports on that same day, but all of 2015 was an abysmal one for the company once the world learned that its relationship with Costco (COST) was far more important than anyone had believed. The impending loss of Costco as a branded partner in the coming 3 months has weighed heavily on American Express, which is ex-dividend this week.

I would believe that most of that loss in share has already been discounted and that disappointments aren’t going to be too likely, particularly if the consumer is truly making something of a comeback.

There has actually been far less press given to retail results this past holiday season than for any that I can remember in the recent and not so recent past.

Most national retailers tend to pull rabbits out of their hats after preparing us for a disappointing holiday season, with the exception of Best Buy (BBY), which traditionally falls during the final week of the year on perpetually disappointing numbers.

Best Buy has already fallen significantly in th e past 3 months, but over the years it has generally been fairly predictable in its ability to bounce back after sharp declines, whether precipitous or death by a thousand cuts.

To my untrained eye it appears that Best Buy is building some support at the $30 level and doesn’t report full earnings for another 2 months. Perhaps it’s its reputation preceding it at this time of the year, but Best Buy’s current option premium is larger than is generally found and I might consider purchasing shares and selling out of the money calls in the anticipation of some price appreciation.

Under Armour (UA) is in a strange place, as it is currently in one of its most sustained downward trends in at least 5 years.

While Nike, its arch competitor, had a stellar year in 2015, up until a fateful downtrend that began in early October, Under Armour was significantly out-performing Nike, even while the latter was some 35% above the S&P 500’s performance.

That same untrained eye sees some leveling off in the past few weeks and despite still having a fairly low beta reflecting a longer period of observation than the past 2 months, the option premium is continuing to reflect uncertainty.

With perhaps some possibility that cold weather may finally be coming to areas where it belongs this time of the year, it may not be too late for Under Armour to play a game of catch up, which is just about the only athletic pursuit that I still consider.

Finally, Pfizer (PFE) has been somewhat mired since announcing a planned merger, buyout, inversion or whatever you like to have it considered. The initially buoyed price has fallen back, but as with Dow Chemical (DOW) which has also fallen back after a similar merger announcement move higher, it has returned to the pre-announcement level.

I view that as indicating that there’s limited downside in the event of some bad news related to the proposed merger, but as with Dow Chemical, Best Buy and Under Armour, the near term option premium continues to reflect perceived near term risk.

Whatever Pfizer;’s merger related risk may be, I don’t believe it will be a near term risk. From the perspective of a call option seller that kind of perception in the face of no tangible news can be a great gift that keeps giving.

Traditional Stocks: MetLife. Morgan Stanley, Pfizer

Momentum Stocks: Best Buy, Under Armour

Double-Dip Dividend: American Express (1/6 $0.29)

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.

Hits: 10

Weekend Update – November 8, 2015

For a very brief period of time before October’s release of the Employment Situation Report and for about 90 minutes afterward, the stock market had started doing something we hadn’t seen for quite a while.

Surprisingly, traders had been interpreting economic news in a rational sort of way. Normally, you wouldn’t have to use the word "surprisingly" to describe that kind of behavior, but for the preceding few years the market was focused on just how great the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy was for equity investors and expressed fear at anything that would take away their easy access to cheap money or would make alternative investments more competitive.

The greatest increment of growth in our stock market over the past few years occurred when bad news was considered good and good news was considered good.

To be more precise, however, that greatest increment of growth occurred when there was the absence of good economic news in the United States and the presence of good economic news in China.

What that meant was that good economic news in the United States was most often greeted as being a threat. Meanwhile back in the good old days when China was reporting one unbelievable quarter after another, their good economic news fueled the fortunes of many US companies doing business there.

Then the news from China began to falter and we were at a very odd intersection when the market was achieving new highs even as so many companies were in correction mode as a Chinese slowdown and supremacy of American currency conspired to offset the continuing gift from the FOMC.

At the time of the release of October’s Employment Situation Report the market initially took the stunningly low number and downward revisions to previous months as reflecting a sputtering economy and added to the losses that started some 6 weeks earlier and that had finally taken the market into a long overdue correction.

90 minutes later came an end to rational behavior and the market rallied in the belief that the bad news on employment could only mean a continuation of low interest rates.

In other words, stock market investors, particularly the institutions that drive the trends were of the belief that fewer people going back to work was something that was good for those in a position to put money to work in the stock market.

Of course, they would never come right out and say that. Instead, there was surely some proprietary algorithm at work that set up a cascading avalanche of buy orders or some technical factors that conveniently removed all human emotion and empathy from the equation.

As bad as the employment numbers seemed, the real surprise came a few weeks later as the FOMC emerged from its meeting and despite not raising rates indicated that employment gains at barely above the same level everyone had taken to be disappointing would actually be sufficient to justify an interest rate increase.

The same kind of reversal that had been seen earlier in the month after the Employment Situation Report was digested was also seen after the most recent FOMC Statement release had started settling into the minds of traders. However, instead of taking the market off in an inappropriate direction, there came the realization that an increase in interest rates can only mean that the economy is improving and that can only be a good thing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to this past week and with the uncertainty of the week ending release of the Employment Situation Report the market went nicely higher to open the first 2 days of trading.

There seemed to be a message being sent that the market was ready to once again accept an imminent interest rate increase, just as it had done a few months prior.

That seemed like a very adult-like sort of thing to do.

The real surprise came when the number of new jobs was reported to be nearly double that of the previous month and was coupled with reports of the lowest unemployment rate in almost 8 years and with a large increase in wages.

Most any other day over the past few years and that combination of news would have sent the market swooning enough to make even the fattest finger proud.

With all of those people now heading back to work and being in a position to begin spending their money in a long overdue return to conspicuous consumption, this coming week’s slew of national retailers reporting earnings may provide some real insight into the true health of the economy.

While the results of the past quarter may not yet fully reflect the improving fortunes of the workforce, I’m more inclined to listen closely to the forecasting abilities of Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s (M) and his fellow retail chieftains than to most any nation’s official data set.

Hopefully, the good employment news of last week will be one of many more good pieces to come and will continue to be accepted for what they truly represent.

While the cycle of increasing workforce participation, rising wages and increased discretionary spending may stop being a virtuous one at some point, that point appears to be far off into the future and for now, I would trade off the high volatility that I usually crave for some sustained move higher that reflects some real heat in the economy.

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

What better paired trade could there be than Aetna (AET) and Altria (MO)?

I don’t mean that in terms of making the concurrent trades by taking a long position in one and a short position in the other, but rather on the basis of their respective businesses.

In the long term, Altria products will likely hasten your death while still making lots of money in the process and Aetna’s products will begrudgingly try to delay your death, being now forced to do so even when the costs of doing so will exceed the premiums being paid.

Either way, you lose, although there may be some room for a winner or two in either or both of these positions as they both had bad weeks even as the broader market finished higher for the 6th consecutive week.

Both have, in fact, badly trailed the S&P 500 since it started its rally after the October Employment Situation Report.

Aetna, although still sporting a low "beta," a measure of volatility, has been quite volatile of late and its option premium is reflecting that recent volatility even as overall volatility has returned to its historically low levels for the broader market.

With Aetna having recently reported earnings and doing what so many have done, that is beating on earnings, but missing on revenues, it had suffered a nearly 8% decline from its spike upon earnings.

That seems like a reasonable place to consider wading in, particularly with optimistic forward guidance projections and a very nice selection of option premiums.

Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) is ex-dividend this week. Although its dividend is well below that of dividend paying stocks in the S&P 500 its recent proposal to buy competitor Rite Aid (RAD) has increased its volatility and made it more appealing of a dividend related trade.

With some displeasure already being expressed over the buyout, Walgreens Boots Alliance will surely do the expected and sell or close some existing stores of both brands and move on with things. But until then, the premiums will likely continue somewhat elevated as Walgreens seeks to further spread its footprint across the globe.

With about a 10% drop since reporting earnings at the end of October there isn’t too much reason to suspect that it will be single out from the broader market to go much lower, unless some very significant and loud opposition to its expansion plans surfaces. With the Thanksgiving holiday rapidly approaching, I don’t think that those objections are going to be voiced in the next week or two.

International Paper (IP) is also ex-dividend this coming week and I think that I’m ready to finally add some shares to an existing lot. Like many other stocks in the past year, it’s road to recovery has been unusually slow and it is a stock that has been among those falling on hard times even as the market rallied to its highs.

While it has recovered quite a bit from its recent low, International Paper has given back some of that gain since reporting earnings last week.

Its price is now near, although still lower than the range at which I like to consider buying or adding shares. The impending dividend is often a catalyst for considering a purchase and that is definitely the case as it goes ex-dividend in a few days.

Its premium is not overly generous, as the option market isn’t perceiving too much uncertainty in the coming week, but the stock does offer a very nice dividend and I may consider using an extended option to try and make it easier to recoup the share price drop due to its dividend distribution. 

Macy’s reports earnings this week and it has had a rough ride after each of its last two earnings reports. When Macy’s is the one reporting store closures, you know that something is a miss in retail or at least some real sea change is occurring.

The fact that the sea change is now showing profits at Amazon (AMZN) for a second consecutive quarter may spell bad things for Macy’s.

The options market must see things precisely that way, because it is implying a 9.2% move in Macy’s next week, which is unusually large for it, although no doubt having taken those past two quarters into account.

Normally, I look for opportunities to sell puts on those companies reporting earnings when I can achieve a 1% ROI on that sale by selecting a strike price outside of the range implied by the option market.

In this case that’s possible, although utilizing a strike that’s 10% below Friday’s close doesn’t offer too large of a margin for error.

However, I think that CEO Lundgren is going to breathe some life into shares with his guidance. I think he understands the consumer as well as anyone, just as he had some keen insight long before anyone else, when explaining why the energy and gas price dividend being received by consumers wasn’t finding its way to retailers, nearly a year ago.

Finally, the most interesting trade of the week may be Target (TGT).

Actually, it may be a trade that takes 2 weeks to play out as the stock is ex-dividend on Monday of the following week and then reports earnings two days later.

Being ex-dividend on a Monday means that if assigned early it would have to occur by Friday of this coming week. However, due to earnings being released the following week the option premiums are significantly enhanced.

What that offers is the opportunity to consider buying shares and selling an extended weekly, deep in the money call with the aim of seeing the shares assigned early.

For example, at Friday’s close of $77.21, the sale of a November 20, 2015 $75.50 call would provide a premium of $2.60.

That would leave a net of $0.89 if shares were assigned early, or an ROI of 1.15% for the 5 day holding, with shares more likely to be assigned early the more Target closes above $76.06 by the close of Friday’s trading.

However, if not assigned early that ROI could climb to 1.9% for the 2 week holding period even if Target shares fall by as much as 2.2% upon earnings.

So maybe it’s not always a misplaced sense of logic to consider bad news as being a source for good things to come.

 

Traditional Stocks: Aetna, Altria

Momentum Stocks: none

Double-Dip Dividend: International Paper (11/12 $0.44), Target (11/16 $0.56), Walgreens Boots Alliance (11/12 $0.36)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Macy’s (11/11 AM)

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.

Hits: 8

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.

Hits: 8

Weekend Update – July 27, 2014

It seems that almost every week over the past few months have both begun and ended with a quandary of which path to take.

Talk about indecision, for the previous seven weeks the market closed in the an alternating direction to the previous week. This past week was the equivalent of landing on the “green” as the S&P 500 was 0.12 higher for the week, but ending the streak.

Like the biology experiment that shows how a frog immersed in water that is slowly brought to a boil never perceives the impending danger to its life, the market has continued to set new closing record high after record high in a slow and methodical fashion.

With all the talk continuing about how money remains on the sidelines from 2008-9, you do have to wonder how getting into the market now is any different from that frog thinking about climbing into that pot as it nears its boiling point.

Unless there’s new money coming in what fuels growth?

That’s not to say that danger awaits or that the slow climb higher will lead to a change in state or a frenzied outburst of energy leading to some calamitous event, but the thought could cross some minds.

Perhaps Friday’s sell off will prompt some to select one path over another, although a single bubble doesn’t mean that as you’re immersed in a bath that it is coming to a boil. It may entirely be due to other reasons, such as your most recent meal, so it’s not always appropriate to jump to conclusions.

While the frog probably doesn’t really comprehend the slowly growing number of bubbles that seem to be arising from the water, investors may begin to notice the rising number of IPO offerings entering the market and particularly their difficulty in achieving pricing objectives.

I wonder what that might signify? The fact that suddenly my discount brokerage seems to be inundating me with IPO offers makes me realize that it does seem to be getting hotter and hotter around me.

This coming week I’ve had cash reserves replenished with a number of assignments, somehow surviving the week ending plunge and I see many prices having come down, even if just a little. That combination often puts me into a spending mood, that would be especially enhanced if Monday begins either on the downside or just tepidly higher.

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

The big news in the markets this week was Facebook (FB) as its earnings report continued to make clear that it has mastered the means to monetize a mobile strategy. While it produces nothing it’s market capitalization is stunning and working its way closer to the top spot. For those in the same or reasonably close sector, the trickle down was appreciated. One of those, Twitter (TWTR) reports earnings this week and the jury is still very much out on whether it has a viable product, a viable management team and even a viable life as an independent entity.

For all of those questions Twitter can be an exciting holding, if you like that sort of thing. I currently hold shares that were assigned to me after having fallen so much that I couldn’t continue the process of rolling over puts any longer. The process to recover has been slow, but speeded a bit by selling calls on the way higher. However, while that has been emotionally rewarding, but as may be the case when puts are sold and potential ownership is something that is shunned, has required lots of maintenance and maneuvering.

With earnings this week the opportunity arises again to consider the sale of new Twitter puts, either before earnings are released or if shares plunge, afterward.

The option market is implying an 11.7% move in shares upon earnings. a 1% weekly ROI may possibly be obtained at a strike price that’s 14.8% below Friday’s close.

While Twitter is filled with uncertainty, Starbucks (SBUX) has some history behind it that gives good reason to have continuing confidence. With the market having looked adversely at Starbucks’ earnings report, Howard Schultz gave an impassioned and wholly rational defense of the company, its operations and prospects.

In the past few years each time Starbucks shares have been pummeled after earnings and Schultz has done as he did on Friday, it has proven itself an excellent entry point for shares. Schultz has repeatedly shown himself to be among the most credible and knowledgeable of CEOs with regard to his own business and business strategy. He has been as bankable as anyone that can be found.

With an upcoming dividend, always competitive option premiums and Schultz standing behind it, the pullback on Friday may be a good time to re-consider adding shares, despite still trading near highs.

While I suppose Yelp (YELP) could tell me all about the nearest Starbucks and the experience that I might expect there, it’s not a site that gets my attention, particularly after seeing some reviews of restaurants that pilloried the businesses of places that my wife and I frequent repeatedly.

Still, there’s clearly something to be had of value through using the site for someone. What does have me interested is the potential opportunity that may exist at earnings. Yelp is no stranger to large moves at earnings and for those who like risk there can be reward in return. However, for those who like smaller dosages of each a 1% ROI for the week can potentially be achieved at a strike price of $58 based on Friday’s $68.68 closing priced and an implied move of 12%. Back in April 2014 I received an almost 3% ROI for the risk taken, but don’t believe that I’m willing to be so daring now that I’m older.

Following the market’s sharp drop on Friday it was difficult to not jump the gun a little bit as some prices looked to be either “too good” or just ready. One of those was General Motors (GM). Having survived earnings last week,
albeit with a sizeable share drop over the course of a few days and wading its way through so much litigation, it is quietly doing what it is supposed to be doing and selling its products. An energized consumer will eventually trade in those cars that have long passed their primes, as for many people what they drive is perceived as the best insight into their true standing in society. General Motors has traded nicely as it has approached $33 and offers a nice premium and attractive dividend, making it fit in nicely with a portfolio that tries to accentuate income streams even while shares my gyrate in price.

I never get tired of thinking about adding shares of eBay (EBAY). With some of my shares assigned this past Friday despite some recent price strength after earnings, I think it is now in that mid-point of its trading range from where it has been relatively easy to manage the position even with some moves lower.

Carl Icahn has remained incredibly quiet on his position in eBay and my guess, based on nothing at all, is that there is some kind of behind the scenes convergence of thought between Icahn and eBay’s CEO, John Donahoe, regarding the PayPal jewel.

With all of the recent talk about “old tech,” there’s reason to consider one of the oldest, Texas Instruments (TXN) which goes ex-dividend this coming week. Having recently traded near its year’s high, shares have come down considerably following earnings, over the course of a few days. While still a little on the high side, it has lots of company in that regard, but at least has the goods to back up its price better than many others. It, too, offers an attractive combination of dividend, premiums and still possibility of share appreciation.

Reporting earnings this week are both MasterCard (MA) and MetLife (MET). Neither are potential trades whose premiums are greatly enhanced by the prospects of earnings related surprises. Both, however, are companies that I would like to once again own, possibly through the sale of put options prior to earnings being announced.

MasterCard suffered on Friday as collateral damage to Visa’s (V) earnings, which helped drag the DJIA down far more than the S&P 500, despite the outsized contribution by Amazon (AMZN) which suffered a % decline after earnings. On top of that are worries again from the Russian market, which earlier in the year had floated the idea of their own credit system. Now new rules impacting payment processors in Russia is of concern.

MasterCard has been able to generate satisfactory option premiums during an otherwise low volatility environment and despite trading in a $72 – $78 range, as it has regular bounces, such as seen this past week.

I have been waiting for MetLife to trade down to about the $52 range for the past two months and perhaps earnings will be the impetus. For that reason I might be more inclined to consider opening a position through the sale of puts rather than an outright buy/write. However, also incorporated into that decision process is that shares will be going ex-dividend the following week and there is some downside to the sale of puts in the face of such an event, much as their may be advantage to selling calls into an ex-dividend date.

Finally, there hasn’t been much that has been more entertaining of late than the Herbalife (HLF) saga. After this past week’s tremendous alternating plunge and surge and the absolute debacle of a presentation by Bill Ackman that didn’t quite live up to its billing.

While there may certainly be lots of validity to Ackman’s claims, which are increasingly not being nuanced, the opportunity may exist on both sides of the controversy, as earnings are announced next week. Unless some significant news arises in addition to earnings, such as from the SEC or FTC, it is like any other high beta stock about to report earnings.

The availability of expanded weekly options makes the trade more appealing in the event of an adverse move bringing shares below the $61.50 level suggested by the implied volatility, allows some greater flexibility. However, because of the possibility of other events, my preference would be to have this be as short term of a holding as possible, such that if selling puts and seeing a rise in shares after earnings, I would likely sacrifice remaining value on the options and close the position, being happy with whatever quick profits were achieved.

Traditional Stocks: eBay, General Motors, MasterCard, MetLife, Starbucks

Momentum: none

Double Dip Dividend: Texas Instruments (7/29)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Herbalife (7/28 PM), Twitter (7/29 PM), Yelp (7/30 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.

Hits: 6

Weekend Update – May 11, 2014

 A few hundred years ago Sir Isaac Newton is widely credited with formulating the Law of Universal Gravitation.

In hindsight, that “discovery” shouldn’t really be as momentous as the discovery more than a century earlier that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth. It doesn’t seem as if it would take an esteemed mathematician to let the would know that objects fall rather than spontaneously rise. Of course, the Law is much more complex than that, but we tend to view things in their most simplistic terms.

Up until recently, the Law of Gravity seemed to have no practical implications for the stock market because prices only went higher, just as the sun revolved around the earth until proven otherwise. Additionally, unlike the very well defined formula that describe the acceleration that accompanies a falling object, there are no such ways to describe how stocks can drop, plunge or go into free fall.

For those that remember the “Great Stockbroker Fallout of 1987,” back then young stockbrokers could have gone 5 years without realizing that what goes up will come down, fled the industry en masse upon realizing  the practical application of Newton’s genius in foretelling the ultimate direction of every stock and stock markets.

The 2014 market has been more like a bouncing ball as the past 10 weeks have seen alternating rises and falls of the S&P 500. Only a mad man or a genius could have predicted that to become the case. It’s unlikely that even a genius like Newton could have described the laws governing such behavior, although even the least insightful of physics students knows that the energy contained in that bouncing ball is continually diminished.

As in the old world when people believed that the world was flat and that its exploration might lead one to fall off the edge, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to that bouncing ball in this flat market as it deceptively has come within a whisker of even more records on the DJIA and S&P 500. Even while moving higher it seems like there is some sort of precipice ahead that some momentum stocks have already discovered while functioning as advance scouts for the rest of the market.

With earnings season nearing its end the catalyst to continue sapping the energy out of the market may need to come from elsewhere although I would gladly embrace any force that would forestall gravity’s inevitable power.

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

As a past customer, I was never enamored of Comcast (CMCSA) and jumped at the first opportunity to switch providers. But while there may be some disdain for the product and especially the service, memories of which won’t easily be erased by visions of a commercial showing a comedian riding along in a service truck, you do have to admire the company’s shares. 

Having spent the past 6 months trading above $49 it has recently been range bound and that is where the appeal for me starts. It’s history of annual dividend increases, good option premiums and price stability adds to that appeal. While there is much back story at present in the world of cable providers and Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable (TWC) may still have some obstacles ahead, the core business shouldn’t be adversely impacted by regulatory decisions.

Also, as a one time frequent customer of Best Buy (BBY), I don’t get into their stores very often anymore. Once they switched from a perpendicular grid store layout to a diagonal one they lost me. Other people blame it on Amazon (AMZN), but for me it was all about the floor plan. But while I don’t shop there very much anymore it’s stock has been a delight trading at the $26 level.

Having had shares assigned for the fourth time in the past two months I would like to see a little bit of a price drop after Friday’s gain before buying shares again. However, with earnings coming up during the first week of the June 2014 option cycle you do have to be prepared for nasty surprises as are often delivered. There’s still more time for someone to blame cold weather on performance and this may be the retailer to do so. WIth that in mind, Best Buy may possibly be better approached through the sale of put options this week with the intent of rolling over if in jeopardy of being assigned shares prior to the earnings release.

There’s barely a week that I don’t consider buying or adding shares of Coach. I currently own shares purchased too soon after recent earnings and that still have a significant climb ahead of them to break even. However, with an upcoming dividend during the June 2014 cycle and shares trading near the yearly low point, I may be content with settling in with a monthly option contract, collecting the premium and dividend and just waiting for shares to do what they have done so reliably over the past two years and returning to and beyond their pre-earnings report level.

Mosaic (MOS) is another one of those companies that I’ve owned on many occasions over the years. Most recently I’ve been a serial purchaser of shares as its share price plunged following announcement of a crack in the potash cartel. Still owning some more expensive shares those serial purchases have helped to offset the paper losses on the more expensive shares. Following a recent price pullback after earnings I’m ready to again add shares as I expect Mosaic to soon surpass the $50 level and stay above there.

Dow Chemical (DOW) is also a company whose shares I’ve owned with frequency over the years, but less so as it moved from $42 to $50. Having recently decided that $48 was a reasonable new re-entry point that may receive some support from the presence of activist investors, the combination of premiums, dividends and opportunity for share appreciation is compelling.

Holly Frontier (HFC) has become a recent favorite replacing Phillips 66 (PSX) which has just appreciated too much and too fast. While waiting for Phillips 66 to return to more reasonable levels, Holly Frontier has been an excellent combination of gyrating price movements up and down and a subsequent return to the mean. Because of those sharp movements its option premium is generally attractive and shares routinely distribute a special dividend in addition to a regular dividend that has been routinely increased since it began three years ago.

The financial sector has been weak of late and we’ve gotten surprises from JP Morgan (JPM) recently with regard to its future investment related earnings and Bank of America (BAC) with regard to its calculation error of capital on its books. However, Morgan Stanley (MS) has been steadfast. Fortunately, if interested in purchasing shares its steadfast performance hasn’t been matched by its share price which is now about 10% off its recent high. 

With its newly increased dividend and plenty of opportunity to see approval for a further increase, it appears to be operating at high efficiency and has been trading within a reasonably tight price range for the past 6 months, making it a good consideration for a covered option trade and perhaps on a serial basis.

Since I’ve spent much of 2014 in pursuit of dividends in anticipation of decreased opportunity for share appreciation, Eli Lilly (LLY) is once again under consideration as it goes ex-dividend this week. With shares trading less than 5% from its one year high, I would prefer a lower entry price, but the sector is seeing more interest with mergers, acquisitions and regulatory scrutiny, all of which can be an impetus for increasing option premiums.

Finally, it’s hard to believe that I would ever live in an age when people are suggesting that Apple (AAPL) may no longer be “cool.” For some, that was the reason behind their reported purchase of Beats Music, as many professed not to understand the synergies, nor the appeal, besides the cache that comes with the name. 

Last week I thought there might be opportunity to purchase Apple shares in order to attempt to capture its dividend and option premium in the hope for a quick trade. As it work turn out that trade was never made because Apple opened the week up strongly, continuing its run higher since recent earnings and other news were announced. I don’t usually chase stocks and in this case that proved to be fortuitous as shares followed the market’s own ambivalence and finished the week lower.

However, this week comes the same potential opportunity with the newly resurgent Microsoft (MSFT). While it’s still too early to begin suggesting that there’s anything “cool” about Microsoft, there’s nothing lame about trying to grab the dividend and option premium that was elusive the previous week with its competition.

Microsoft has under-performed the S&P 500 over the past month as the clamor over “old technology” hasn’t really been a path to riches, but has certainly been better than the so-called “new technology.” Yet Microsoft has been maintaining the $39 level and may be in good position to trade in that range for a while longer. It neither needs to obey or disregard gravity for its premiums and dividends to make it a worthwhile portfolio addition.

 

Traditional Stocks: Comcast, Dow Chemical, Holly Frontier

Momentum: Best Buy, Coach, Morgan Stanley, Mosaic

Double Dip Dividend: Microsoft (5/13 $0.28), Eli Lilly (5/13 $0.49)

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.

Hits: 4

Is Jeff Bezos Killing Capitalism?

(A version of this article appeared on TheStreet)

 

My guess is that if you asked people to describe the face of the individual most tied to the idea of destroying capitalism you would evoke images of Marx, Lenin or Castro, men of distinctive features and great bluster who made no secret of their disdain.

Ask me and I see a man who is softly spoken, clean shaved, spares the bluster, lacks distinct or memorable features, although possesses a distinctive laugh and has greatly benefited from the system he is destroying. I see Jeff Bezos as the anti-capitalist who is methodically destroying the foundations that allowed the United States to thrive.

First, let’s acknowledge that Amazon (AMZN) is an American success story. Financed by family funds and embracing technology as none had before, it survived an era that many did not and turned a concept into reality that has subsumed retailing, forcing retailers to create online shopping strategies.

Amazon will report its earnings on January 30, 2014. While I don’t invest with items such as P/E, in mind, I know enough that Amazon’s P/E of 1414 puts to rest the derisive comments about it being a non-profit. But I also know that no one believes in the axiom “we make it up in volume” more than Amazon, which had a 0.19% profit margin last year, compared to a sector average of 9.5%. Of 20 national retailers, only four had profit margins lower than Amazon; JC Penney, Sears Holdings, Best Buy and Aeropostale.

And that is precisely the problem. That is how Amazon is killing capitalism in its methodic march to eliminate competition, beginning with the already wounded. As the saying goes, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” Bezos, though, isn’t being irrational, as demonstrated by competitors that are slowly melting into irrelevancy. With size comes power, in this case pricing power, which to a degree has been supported by an asymmetric application of sales tax collection requirements. In essence, indirect government support undermining existing capitalist structure in support of a venture evolving toward a monopolistic or market controlling position.

At a time when consumer discretionary spending doesn’t appear to be consistent with an expanding and improving economy price sensitivity remains an important motivator and Amazon maintains its advantage by aggressive pricing at the expense of margins. With over $70 billion in revenues it trails Wal-Mart, but exceeds the combined revenues of Sears, JC Penney and Kohls, while matching Target’s revenues. The latter two companies have scarce cushion in their profit and operating margins to withstand further erosion by an energized Amazon, ready to continue decreasing its margins, as it has done over the past 3 years.

AMZN Profit Margin (Quarterly) Chart
AMZN Profit Margin (Quarterly) data by YCharts

Don’t get me wrong. I am a capitalist through and through and believe that competition is what drives us forward, while other systems are left to the ash heaps of history along with the dodo. The same fate should befall businesses that simply can’t compete on the basis of that blend of price and quality that appeals to varying segments of the population.

Competing against Amazon, however, is somewhat like the Aztecs being faced with gunpowder propelled projectiles.

Admittedly, I shop Amazon and will probably continue doing so even as it increasingly loses the sales tax advantage it held over brick and mortar retailers. However, it is now that next phase, as that artificial pricing advantage disappears, that Amazon can only do one thing to maintain its position. It has to further reduce its profit margins.

While Bezos may not be acting irrationally, investors may be accused of doing so, particularly in light of margins. Most any other retailing CEO would have been shown the door with performance such as Amazon delivers. However, it’s share price that talks and you can’t argue with a P/E of 1414, except that it’s 1414. The realization that profits and return on equity are important concepts is currently suspended as there is implicit buy-in from investors that the strategy of driving the competition out of business is a sound one in anticipation of even greater share appreciation rewards. Clearly the vision of near monopolistic existence has its perceived reward.

While Amazon may not solely be to blame for the woes at JC Penney (JCP) and Sears (SHLD), it may not be entirely coincidental that JC Penney and Sears profit woes began in earnest at the time that Amazon’s own profit margins began decreasing in 2011. Amazon is undoubtedly a contributor not just to those growing losses, but also to the degradation of the shopping experience as so graphically illustrated in a recent series of articles by Rocco Pendola. When you can no longer compete on the basis of price and are unable to generate sales revenues and cash flows, the only recourse remaining is to cut costs.

Fewer employees, bare shelves and lack of facilities maintenance are the natural next stages. As predictable as the “Five Stages of Grief,” except there may be no end stage healthy resolution in sight.

While Bezos is on a path that endangers capitalism, his continued success may really jeopardize Amazon’s own shareholders whose fortunes are predicated on a model that history has shown can’t be sustained. Eventually, profits and not promises, are the engine that drive companies and their stocks. Sooner or later, cash flow is no substitute for profits.

If you want to see capitalism saved, the answer is a plummeting Amazon share price and subsequent investor pressure to increase profit margins, restoring balance to the retail sector and giving the likes of JC Penney and Sears the ability to dodge those projectiles.

Hits: 4

Weekend Update – November 17, 2013

Things aren’t always as they seem.

As I listened to Janet Yellen face her Senate inquisitors as the hearing process began for her nomination as our next Federal Reserve Chairman, the inquisitors themselves were reserved. In fact they were completely unrecognizable as they demonstrated behavior that could be described as courteous, demur and respectful. They didn’t act like the partisan megalomaniacs they usually are when the cameras are rolling and sound bites are beckoning.

That can’t last. Genteel or not, we all know that the reality is very different. At some point the true colors bleed through and reality has to take precedence.

Closing my eyes I thought it was Woody Allen’s sister answering softball economic questions. Opening my eyes I thought I was having a flashback to a curiously popular situational comedy from the 1990s, “Suddenly Susan,” co-starring a Janet Yellen look-alike, known as “Nana.” No one could possibly sling arrows at Nana.

These days we seem to go back and forth between trying to decide whether good news is bad news and bad news is good news. Little seems to be interpreted in a consistent fashion or as it really is and as a result reactions aren’t very predictable.

Without much in the way of meaningful news during the course of the week it was easy to draw a conclusion that the genteel hearings and their content was associated with the market’s move to the upside. In this case the news was that the economy wasn’t yet ready to stand on its own without Treasury infusions and that was good for the markets. Bad news, or what would normally be considered bad news was still being considered as good news until some arbitrary point that it is decided that things should return to being as they really seem, or perhaps the other way around..

While there’s no reason to believe that Janet Yellen will do anything other than to follow the accommodative actions of the Federal Reserve led by Ben Bernanke, political appointments and nominations have a long history of holding surprises and didn’t always result in the kind of comfortable predictability envisioned. As it would turn out even Woody Allen wasn’t always what he had seemed to be.

Certainly investing is like that and very little can be taken for granted. With two days left to go until the end of the just ended monthly option cycle and having a very large number of positions poised for assignment or rollover, I had learned the hard way in recent months that you can’t count on anything. In those recent cases it was the release of FOMC minutes two days before monthly expiration that precipitated market slides that snatched assignments away. Everything seemed to be just fine and then it wasn’t suddenly so.

As the markets continue to make new closing highs there is division over whether what we are seeing is real or can be sustained. I’m tired of having been wrong for so long and wonder where I would be had I not grown cash reserves over the past 6 months in the belief that the rising market wasn’t what it really seemed to be.

What gives me comfort is knowing that I would rather be wondering that than wondering why I didn’t have cash in hand to grab the goodies when reality finally came along.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum and “PEE” categories this week (see details).

Sometimes the most appealing purchases are the very stocks that you already own or recently owned. Since I almost exclusively employ a covered option strategy I see lots of rotation of stocks in and out of my portfolio. That’s especially true at the end of a monthly option cycle, particularly if ending in a flourish of rising prices, as was the case this week.

Among shares assigned this past week were Dow Chemical (DOW), International Paper (IP), eBay (EBAY) and Seagate Technology (STX).

eBay just continues to be a model of price mediocrity. It seems stuck in a range but seems to hold out enough of a promise of breaking out of that range that its option premiums continue to be healthy. At a time when good premiums are increasingly difficult to attain because of historically low volatility, eBay has consistently been able to deliver a 1% ROI for its near the money weekly options. I don’t mind wallowing in its mediocrity, I just wonder why Carl Icahn hasn’t placed this one on his radar screen.

International Paper is well down from its recent highs and I’ve now owned and lost it to assignment three times in the past month. While that may seem an inefficient way to own a stock, it has also been a good example of how the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole when tallying the profits that can arise from punctuated ownership versus buy and hold. Having comfortably under-performed the broad market in 2013 it doesn’t appear to have froth built into its current price

Although Dow Chemical is getting near the high end of the range that I would like to own shares it continues to solidify its base at these levels. What gives me some comfort in considering adding shares at this level is that Dow Chemical has still under-performed the S&P 500 YTD and may be more likely to withstand any market downturn, especially when buoyed by dividends, option premiums and some patience, if required.

Unitedhealth Group (UNH) is in a good position as it’s on both sides of the health care equation. Besides being the single largest health care carrier in the United States, its purchase of Quality Software Services last year now sees the company charged with the responsibility of overhauling and repairing the beleague
red Affordable Care Act’s web site. That’s convenient, because it was also chosen to help set up the web site. It too, is below its recent highs and has been slowly working its way back to that level. Any good news regarding ACA, either programmatically or related to the enrollment process, should translate into good news for Unitedhealth

Seagate Technology simply goes up and down. That’s a perfect recipe for a successful covered option holding. It’s moves, in both directions, can however, be disconcerting and is best suited for the speculative portion of a portfolio. While not too far below its high thanks to a 2% drop on Friday, it does have reasonable support levels and the more conservative approach may be through the sale of out of the money put options.

While I always feel a little glow whenever I’m able to repurchase shares after assignment at a lower price, sometimes it can feel right even at a higher price. That’s the case with Microsoft (MSFT). Unlike many late to the party who had for years disparaged Microsoft, I enjoyed it trading with the same mediocrity as eBay. But even better than eBay, Microsoft offered an increasingly attractive dividend. Shares go ex-dividend this week and I’d like to consider adding shares after a moth’s absence and having missed some of the run higher. With all of the talk of Alan Mullally taking over the reins, there is bound to be some let down in price when the news is finally announced, but I think the near term price future for shares is relatively secure and I look forward to having Microsoft serve as a portfolio annuity drawing on its dividends and option premiums.

I’m always a little reluctant to recommend a possible trade in Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF). Actually, not always, only since the trades that still have me sitting on much more expensive shares purchased just prior to the dividend cut. Although in the interim I’ve made trades to offset those paper losses, thanks to attractive option premiums reflecting the risk, I believe that the recent sustained increase in this sector is for real and will continue. Despite that, I still wavered about considering the trade again this week, but the dividend pushed me over. Although a fraction of what it had been earlier in the year it still has some allure and increasing iron ore prices may be just the boost needed for a dividend boost which would likely result in a significant rise in shares. I’m not counting on it quite yet, but think that may be a possibility in time for the February 2014 dividend.

While earnings season is winding down there are some potentially interesting trades to consider for those with a little bit of a daring aspect to their investing.

Not too long ago Best Buy (BBY) was derided as simply being Amazon’s (AMZN) showroom and was cited as heralding the death of “brick and mortar.” But, things really aren’t always as they seem, as Best Buy has certainly implemented strategic shifts and has seen its share price surge from its lows under previous management. As with most earnings related trades that I consider undertaking, I’m most likely if earnings are preceded by shares declining in price. Selling puts into price weakness adds to the premium while some of the steam of an earnings related decline may be dissipated by the selling before the actual release.

salesforce.com (CRM) has been a consistent money maker for investors and is at new highs. It is also a company that many like to refer to as a house of cards, yet another way of saying that “things aren’t always as they seem.” As earnings are announced this week there is certainly plenty of room for a fall, even in the face of good news. With a nearly 9% implied volatility, a 1.1% ROI can be attained if less than a 10% price drop occurs, based on Friday’s closing prices through the sale of out of the money put contracts.

Then of course, there’s JC Penney (JCP). What can possibly be added to its story, other than the intrigue that accompanies it relating to the smart money names having taken large positions of late. While the presence of “smart money” isn’t a guarantee of success, it does get people’s attention and JC Penney shares have fared well in the past week in advance of earnings. The real caveat is that the presence of smart money may not be what it seems. With an implied move of 11% the sale of put options has the potential to deliver an ROI of 1.3% even if shares fall nearly 17%.

Finally, even as a one time New York City resident, I don’t fully understand the relationship between its residents and the family that controls Cablevision (CVC), never having used their services. As an occasional share holder, however, I do understand the nature of the feelings that many shareholders have against the Dolan family and the feelings that the publicly traded company has served as a personal fiefdom and that share holders have often been thrown onto the moat in an opportunity to suck assets out for personal gain.

I may be understating some of those feelings, but I harbor none of those, personally. In fact, I learned long ago, thanks to the predominantly short term ownership afforded through the use of covered options, that it should never be personal. It should be about making profits. Cablevision goes ex-dividend this week and is well off of its recent highs. Dividends, option premiums and some upside potential are enough to make even the most hardened of investors get over any personal grudges.

Traditional Stocks: Dow Chemical, eBay, International Paper, Unitedhealth Group

Momentum Stocks: Seagate Technology

Double Dip Dividend: Cablevision (ex-div 11/20), Cliffs Natural (ex-div 11/20), Microsoft (ex-div 11/19)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Best Buy (11/19 AM), salesforce.com (11/18 PM), JC Penney (11/20 AM)

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.

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Weekend Update – July 28, 2013

Stocks need leadership, but it’s hard to be critical of a stock market that seems to hit new highs on a daily basis and that resists all logical reasons to do otherwise.

That’s especially true if you’ve been convinced for the past 3 months that a correction was coming. If anything, the criticism should be directed a bit more internally.

What’s really difficult is deciding which is less rational. Sticking to failed beliefs despite the facts or the facts themselves.

In hindsight those who have called for a correction have instead stated that the market has been in a constant state of rotation so that correction has indeed come, but sector by sector, rather than in the market as a while.

Whatever. By which I don’t mean in an adolescent “whatever” sense, but rather “whatever it takes to convince others that you haven’t been wrong.”

Sometimes you’re just wrong or terribly out of synchrony with events. Even me.

What is somewhat striking, though, is that this incredible climb since 2009 has really only had a single market leader, but these days Apple (AAPL) can no longer lay claim to that honor. This most recent climb higher since November 2012 has often been referred to as the “least respected rally” ever, probably due to the fact that no one can point a finger at a catalyst other than the Federal Reserve. Besides, very few self-respecting capitalists would want to credit government intervention for all the good that has come their way in recent years, particularly as it was much of the unbridled pursuit of capitalism that left many bereft.

At some point it gets ridiculous as people seriously ask whether it can really be considered a rally of defensive stocks are leading the way higher. As if going higher on the basis of stocks like Proctor & Gamble (PG) was in some way analogous to a wad of hundred dollar bills with lots of white powder over it.

There have been other times when single stocks led entire markets. Hard to believe, but at one time it was Microsoft (MSFT) that led a market forward. In other eras the stocks were different. IBM (IBM), General Motors (GM) and others, but they were able to create confidence and optimism.

What you can say with some certainty is that it’s not going to be Amazon (AMZN), for example, as you could have made greater profit by shorting and covering 100 shares of Amazon as earnings were announced. than Amazon itself generated for the quarter. It won’t be Facebook (FB) either. despite perhaps having found the equivalent of the alchemist’s dream, by discovering a means to monetize mobile platforms.

Sure Visa (V) has had a remarkable run over the past few years but it creates nothing. It only facilitates what can end up being destructive consumer behavior.

As we sit at lofty market levels you do have to wonder what will maintain or better yet, propel us to even greater heights? It’s not likely to be the Federal Reserve and if we’re looking to earnings, we may be in for a disappointment, as the most recent round of reports have been revenue challenged.

I don’t know where that leadership will come from. If I knew, I wouldn’t continue looking for weekly opportunities. Perhaps those espousing the sector theory are on the right track, but for an individual investor married to a buy and hold portfolio that kind of sector rotational leadership won’t be very satisfying, especially if in the wrong sectors or not taking profits when it’s your sector’s turn to shine.

Teamwork is great, but what really inspires is leadership. We are at that point that we have come a long way without clear leadership and have a lot to lose.

So while awaiting someone to step up to the plate, maybe you can identify a potential leader from among this week’s list. As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum or “PEE” categories (see details).

ALthough last week marked the high point of earnings season, I was a little dismayed to see that a number of this week’s prospects still have earnings ahead of them.

While I have liked the stock, I haven’t always been a fan of Howard Schultz. Starbucks (SBUX) had an outstanding quarter and its share price responded. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the last 20 or so points. What did catch my interest, however, was the effusive manner in which Schultz described the Starbucks relationship with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR). In the past shares of Green Mountain have suffered at the ambivalence of Schultz’s comments about that relationship. This time, however, he was glowing, calling it a “Fantastic relationship with Green Mountain and Brian Kelly (the new CEO)… and will only get stronger.”

Green Mountain reports earnings during the August 2013 option cycle. It is always a volatile trade and fraught with risk. Having in the past been on the long side during a 30% price decline after earnings and having the opportunity to discuss that on Bloomberg, makes it difficult to hide that fact. In considering potential earnings related trades, Green Mountain offers extended weekly options, so there are numerous possibilities with regard to finding a mix of premium and risk. Just be prepared to own shares if you opt to sell put options, which is the route that I would be most likely to pursue.

Deere (DE) has languished a bit lately and hasn’t fared well as it routinely is considered to have the same risk factors as other heavy machinery manufacturers, such as Caterpillar and Joy Global. Whether that’s warranted or not, it is their lot. Deere, lie the others, trades in a fairly narrow range and is approaching the low end of that range. It does report earnings prior to the end of the monthly option cycle, so those purchasing shares and counting on assignment of weekly options should be prepared for the possibility of holding shares through a period of increased risk.

Heading into this past Friday morning, I thought that there was a chance that I would be recommending all three of my “Evil Troika,” of Halliburton (HAL), British Petroleum (BP) and Transocean (RIG). Then came word that Halliburton had admitted destroying evidence in association with the Deepwater disaster, so obviously, in return shares went about 4% higher. WHat else would anyone have expected?

With that eliminated for now, as I prefer shares in the $43-44 range, I also eliminated British Petroleum which announces earnings this week. That was done mostly because I already have two lots of shares. But Transocean, which reports earnings the following week has had some very recent price weakness and is beginning to look like it’s at an appropriate price to add shares, at a time that Halliburton’s good share price fortunes didn’t extend to its evil partners.

Pfizer (PFE) offers another example of situations I don’t particularly care for. That is the juxtaposition of earnings and ex-dividend date on the same or consecutive days. In the past, it’s precluded me from considering Men’s Warehouse (MW) and just last week Tyco (TYC). However, in this situation, I don’t have some of the concerns about share price being dramatically adversely influenced by earnings. Additionally, with the ex-dividend date coming the day after earnings, the more cautious investor can wait, particularly if anticipating a price drop. Pfizer’s pipeline is deep and its recent spin-off of its Zoetis (ZTS) division will reap benefits in the form of a de-facto massive share buyback.

My JC Penney (JCP) shares were assigned this past week, but as it clings to the $16 level it continues to offer an attractive premium for the perceived risk. In this case, earnings are reported August 16, 2013 and I believe that there will be significant upside surprise. Late on Friday afternoon came news that David Einhorn closed his JC Penney short position and that news sent shares higher, but still not too high to consider for a long position in advance of earnings.

Another consistently on my radar screen, but certainly requiring a great tolerance for risk is Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF). It was relatively stable this past week and it would have been a good time to have purchased shares and covered the position as done the previous week. While I always like to consider doing so, I would like to see some price deterioration prior to purchasing the next round of shares, especially as earning’s release looms in just two weeks.

Sticking to the fashion retail theme, L Brands (LTD) may be a new corporate name, but it retains all of the consistency that has been its hallmark for so long. It’s share price has been going higher of late, diminishing some of the appeal, but any small correction in advance of earnings coming during the current option cycle would put it back on my purchase list, particularly if approaching $52.50, but especially $50. Unfortunately, the path that the market has been taking has made those kind of retracements relatively uncommon.

In advance of earnings I sold Dow Chemical (DOW) puts last week. I was a little surprised that it didn’t go up as much as it’s cousin DuPont (DD), but finishing the week anywhere above $34 would have been a victory. Now, with earnings out of the way, it may simply be time to take ownership of shares. A good dividend, good option premiums and a fairly tight trading range have caused it to consistently be on my radar screen and a frequent purchase decision. It has been a great example of how a stock needn’t move very much in order to derive outsized profits.

MetLife (MET) is another of a long list of companies reporting earnings this week, but the options market isn’t anticipating a substantive move in either direction. Although it is near its 52 week high, which is always a precarious place to be, especially before earnings, while it may not lead entire markets higher, it certainly can follow them.

Finally, it’s Riverbed Technology (RVBD) time again. While I do already own shares and have done so very consistently for years, it soon reports earnings. Shares are currently trading at a near term high, although there is room to the upside. Riverbed Technology has had great leadership and employed a very rational strategy for expansion. For some reason they seem to have a hard time communicating that message, especially when giving their guidance in post-earnings conference calls. I very often expect significant price drops even though they have been very consistent in living up to analyst’s expectations. With shares at a near term high there is certainly room for a drop ahead if they play true to form. I’m very comfortable with ownership in the $15-16 range and may consider selling puts, perhaps even for a forward month.

Traditional Stocks: Deere, Dow Chemical, L Brands, MetLife, Transocean

Momentum Stocks: Abercrombie and Fitch, JC Penney

Double Dip Dividend: Pfizer (ex-div 7/31)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (8/7 PM), Riverbed Technology (7/30 PM)

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. Some of the above selections may be sent to Option to Profit subscribers as actionable Trading Alerts, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts. Alerts are sent in adjustment to and consideration of market movements, in an attempt to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.

 

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Weekend Update – April 21, 2013

I’m finally feeling bullish. Sort of.

Two months ago I started getting a very uneasy feeling.

Normally, money burns a hole in my pocket. Sadly for the economy, that’s not the case when it comes to consumer goods, but it’s definitely the case when it comes to stocks.

Selling options, and predominantly of the weekly variety, I often have had the pleasure of awaking Monday morning to see freshly deposited cash in my account as shares upon which I had written weekly call contracts were assigned.

But that has changed recently, ever since that uneasy feeling hit.

The principal change was not immediately going out on shopping sprees on Monday mornings and instead building up cash caches. Among the changes were also the use of longer option contract periods because of the realization that so often market downturns happen suddenly and I would prefer not to be caught flat-footed or in-between contracts when and if it does occur.

But now, after what is the worst week of 2013, it may be time for yet another transition, of sorts.

As the April 2013 cycle has come to an end and many of those contracts have been assigned or rolled over to May 2013, being flush with cash at a time that some stocks have had some meaningful declines introduces temptation.

Jim Cramer used to say “there’s always a bull market somewhere.” I may still harbor the belief that the market is poised to mime the same period of 2012, but within that bearish sentiment I do see some glimmers of hope and opportunity as there is a universe of beaten down stocks that may have deserved better.

The week’s selections are categorized as either Traditional, Momentum, or “PEE” (see details). Although my preference, during this period of pessimism is to continue seeking high quality, dividend paying stocks as a defensive position, there aren’t many of those to consider this week. Instead, earnings and injured shares predominate.

Anadarko (APC) is one of those stocks that has seen a relatively large drop recently, but has been showing some strength at $79. It does report earnings on May 6, 2013, but the weekly option premium is unusually high for the period two weeks before earnings. While the monthly premiums are also attractive, this may be one of the situations where I would still consider the use of a weekly contract.

eBay (EBAY) also had a rough week. it is among those stocks that have had some significant drops that may have been overdone. Down about 7% following earnings its share price is approaching the $52.50 level where it has had some reasonable strength. It too may warrant a look at the weekly option contracts, especially if it appears as if there may be some market stability early next week.

In a similar situation, General Electric (GE) suffered a 4% earnings related loss on Friday and is down about 8% over the past 2 months. It too is approaching a price level where it has been pretty comfortable and when GE is comfortable, so am I. Flush with cash itself, GE may continue its own spending spree which is sometimes a short term share price depressant. If its current share price is maintained or goes a bit lower on Monday, it may be one of those few positions that I do not immediately cover by selling call options, but rather await some price rebound and then sell options.

I was disappointed when it was decided that Texas Instruments (TXN) would no longer have weekly options offered. However, the concern is now on hold as the monthly contracts look better and better every day, especially as volatility and premiums are increasing. Texas Instruments goes ex-dividend this week and that is a significant repository of its appeal to me. However, before it does so, it reports earnings. I don’t particularly see a compelling trade based on that event on Monday afternoon, so I would likely wait until after that occurs to decide whether the premium offered is still appealing enough to purchase shares.

Although I’m overweight in the Technology Sector, and despite the fact that its performance hasn’t been spectacular, sometimes I do find it hard to resist after price pullbacks. That was certainly the case after re-purchasing shares of Cypress Semiconductor (CY) after its deep fall upon earnings and disappointing guidance. Although IBM’s (IBM) earnings report on Friday cast a little bit of a pall over the sector some values appear to available. For the coming week, both Cisco (CSCO) and Oracle (ORCL), which I owned just a week ago prior to its assignment are again in a price range that works for me, Even as I hold uncovered shares of sector mate Riverbed Technology (RVBD) which reports earnings this week and often follows Oracle’s pattern, I believe that there are opportunities at these levels even in a weak overall market.

I always like MetLife (MET). So often, however, it seems just as I want to purchase shares the rest of the world has had the same idea and I’m reluctant to chase the stock. This past week, it along with the market settled down a bit. It always offers a fair option premium and it is a resilient performer even in the face of overall market adversity.

Although I also always like YUM Brands (YUM) that, unfortunately, doesn’t give me freedom to extend that to its products, as I’m now sworn to keeping my cholesterol within survivable levels. However, perhaps increasing my use of MetLife products might offset the use of YUM’s goods. After a fairly significant price fall, YUM Brands is back to the range that offers me as much comfort as their foods. I think that it is immune from near term Chinese economic concerns, the market having digested that along with its drumsticks.

With Apple (AAPL) sinking below $400/share and earnings set to be announced this week it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to believe that there may be significant price movement upon their release. Always a volatile holding upon earnings and guidance, there isn’t much pent up frustration any longer. Following more than a 40% drop in share price most shareholders and long time advocates have had ample opportunity to vent. Although Steve Jobs was notorious for his strategy of under-promising and over-delivering, it’s hard to imagine that expectations could get any lower. I think Apple is a good earnings play, factoring in a 10% price drop in return for nearly a 1% ROI. Relative to the market, i expect Apple to trade higher in the aftermath of its eagerly awaited news, which makes the sale of out of the money put options particularly appealing.

Netflix (NFLX) certainly would qualify as a finalist in any “comeback stock of the year” competition. I haven’t owned shares in almost 90 points. Like the other earnings related selections this week, it is certainly capable of a dramatic move when earnings and guidance are released. In this case, there may be opportunity to still derive a 1% ROI even if share price falls by as much as 25%. Risky? Yes, but Green Mountain (GMCR) has shown that momentum stocks can come back more than once. Even a significant price drop can no longer be counted upon as being a conclusion to the Netflix story. What was once considered the end of its run, Netflix has successfully gone on to its second life and could easily have a third.

Finally, Amazon (AMZN) is actually my least compelling earnings related trade in that the price drop cushion in order to achieve a 1% ROI is only about 8%. With a universal chorus deriding the razor thin margins and the P/E one has to wonder when that point will arrive that the market decides to treat Amazon as it does many other companies that spend time in rarefied environments. Still, if the cash in my pocket gets too hot this may be its final resting place.

Traditional Stocks: Anadarko, Cisco, eBay, General Electric, MetLife, Oracle

Momentum Stocks: YUM Brands

Double Dip Dividend: Texas Instruments (4/26)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Amazon (4/25 PM), Apple (4/23 PM), Netflix (4/22 PM)

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. Some of the above selections may be sent to Option to Profit subscribers as actionable Trading Alerts, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts. Alerts are sent in adjustment to and consideration of market movements, in an attempt to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.

Some of the stocks mentioned in this article may be viewed for their past performance utilizing the Option to Profit strategy.

 

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