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.

Weekend Update – February 22, 2015


After setting a new high on the S&P 500 last week, the bull was asleep this holiday shortened trading week, having been virtually flat for the first 3 days of trading and having been devoid of the kind of intra-day volatility that has marked most of 2015.

That’s of course only if you ignore how the week ended, as this time the S&P 500 wasn’t partying alone, as the DJIA and other indexes joined in recording new record highs.

For the briefest of moments as the market opened for trading on Friday morning it looked as if that gently sleeping bull was going to slip into some kind of an unwarranted coma and slip away, as the DJIA dropped 100 points with no consequential news to blame.

However, as has been the case for much of 2015 a reversal wiped out that move and returned the market to that gentle sleep that saw a somnolent market add a less than impressive 0.1% to its record close from the previous week.

In a perfect example of why you should give up trying to apply rational thought processes to an irrational situation, the market then later awoke from that gentle sleep in a paroxysm of buying activity, as an issue that we didn’t seem to care about before today, took hold, thereby demonstrating the corollary to “It is what it is” by showing that it only matters when it matters.

That issue revolved around Greece and the European Union. The relationship of Greece and the EU seemed to be heading toward a potential dissolution as a new Greek government was employing its finest bluster, but without much base to its bravado. As it was all unfolding, this time around, as compared to the last such crisis a few years ago, we seemed content to ignore the potential consequences to the EU and their banking system.

While that situation was being played out in the news most analysts agreed it was impressive that US markets were ignoring the drama inherent in the EU dysfunction. The threat of contagion to other “weak sister”nations in the event of a member nation’s exit and the very real question of the continuing integrity of that union seemed to be an irrelevancy to our own markets.

Yet for some reason, while we didn’t care about the potential bad news, the market seemed to really care when the bluster gave way to capitulation, even though the result was reminiscent of the very finest in “kicking the can down the road” as practiced by our own elected officials over the past few governmental stalemates.

From that moment on, as the rumors of some sort of accord were being made known the calm of the week gave way to some irrational buying.

Of course, when that can was on our own shores, the result in our stock market was exactly the same when it was kicked, so the lesson has to be pretty clear about ever wanting to do anything decisive.

Next week, however, may bring a rational reason to do something to either spur that bull to new heights or to send it into retreat.

Forget about the impending congressiona

l testimony that Janet Yellen will be providing for 2 days next week as the impetus for the market to move. Why look for external stimulants in the form of economist-speak when you already have all of the ingredients that you need in the form of fundamentals, a language that you understand?

While “Fashion Week” was last week and exciting for some, the real excitement comes this week with the slew of earnings from major national retailers trying to sell all of those fashions. While their backward looking reports may not reflect the impact of decreased energy prices among their customers, their forward looking comments may finally bring some light to what is really going on in the economy.

With “Retail Sales” reports of the past two months, which also include gasoline purchases, having left a bad taste with investors, a better taste of things to come has already been telegraphed by some retailers in their rosy comments in advance of their earnings release.

This coming week could offer lots of rational reasons to move the market next week. Unfortunately, that could be in either direction.

With earnings reports back on center stage after a relatively quiet earnings week, stocks were mostly asleep, but, that was definitely not the case in other markets. If looking for a source of contagion there are lots of potential culprits.

Bond markets, precious metals and oil all continued their volatility. The 10 Year Treasury Bond, for example saw abrupt and large changes in direction this week and has seen rates head about 30% higher over the past couple of weeks after the FOMC sowed some doubt into their intentions and timing.

^TNX Chart

^TNX data by YCharts

While Janet Yellen may shed some light on FOMC next steps and their time frame, she is, to some degree held hostage by some of those markets, as traders move interest rates and energy prices around without regard to policy or to what they position they held deeply the day before.

For my part, I don’t mind the marked indecision in other markets as long as this current market in equities can keep moving forward a small step at a time in its sleep.

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

Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) after all of the

se years is sadly in the position of having to establish an identity for itself, although with a market capitalization of $42 billion lots of that sadness can be assuaged.

It’s difficult to think of another situation in which a CEO has seen shares rise nearly 180% during their tenure, in this case about 30 months, yet remain so highly criticized. However, after a storied history it is a little embarrassing to be best known as the company that once owned Alibaba (NYSE:BABA), although the billions received and the billions more to come help to ease some of that awkwardness.

With Alibaba’s next lock-up expiration coming on March 18, 2015, there’s potentially some downward pressure on Yahoo which still has a sizeable stake in Alibaba, However, as has been seen over the last few years the flooding of the market with new shares doesn’t necessarily result in the logical outcome.

In the meantime, while there is some concern over the impact of that event on Yahoo shares and as Alibaba has its own uncertainties beyond the lock-up expiration, option premiums in Yahoo have gotten a little richer as shares have already come down 11% since earnings were reported. After that decline either a covered call or put sale, as an intended very short term trade may be appropriate as waiting for Yahoo to find itself before you grow too old.

For as long as Jamie Dimon remains as its CEO and Chairman, JP Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) isn’t likely to have any identity problems. Despite not having anywhere near the returns of Yahoo during the period of his tenure and having paid out much more in regulatory fines than Yahoo received for its Alibaba shares, the criticism is scant other than by those who battle over the idea of “too big too faii” and the actual fine-worthy actions.

However, just as the CEO of Yahoo was able to benefit from an event outside of her control, which was the purchase of Alibaba by her predecessor years earlier, Dimon stands to benefit from what will eventually be a rising interest rate rate environment. Amid some confusion over the FOMC’s comments regarding the adverse impact of low rates, but also the adverse impact of raising them too quickly, rates resumed their climb after a quick 4% decline. While the financial sector wasn’t the weakest last weak, energy had that honor, there isn’t too much reason to suspect that interest rates will return to their recent low levels.

BGC Partners (NASDAQ:BGCP) is another company that has no such identity problems as much of its identity is wrapped up in its Chairman and CEO, who has just come to agreement with the board of GFI Group (NYSE:GFIG) in his takeover bid.

For the past 10 years BGC Partners has closely tracked the interest rate on the 10 Year Treasury Note, although notably during much of 2014 it did not. Recently, however, it appears that relationship is back on track. If so, and you believe that rates will be heading higher, the opportunity for share appreciation exists. In addition to that, however, is also a very attractive dividend and shares do go ex-dividend this week. With only a monthly option contract available and large gaps between strike levels, this is a position that may warrant a longer term time frame commitment.

Also going ex-dividend this week are McDonalds (NYSE:MCD) and SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK).

I often think about buying shares of McDonalds, but rarely do so. Most of the time that turned out to have been a bad decision if looking at it from a covered option perspective. From a buy and hold perspective, however, it has been more than 2 years since there have been any decent entry points and returns.

With a myriad of problems facing it and a new CEO to tackle them my expectation is that more bad news is unlikely other than at the next earnings release when it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the traditional use of charges against earnings to make the new CEO’s future performance look so much better by comparison. Between now and that date in 2 months, I think there will be lots of opportunity to reap option premiums from shares, as I anticipate it trading in a narrow range or higher. Getting started with a nice dividend this week makes the process more palatable than many have been finding the menu.

SanDisk is a company that was written off years ago as being nothing more than a company that offered a one time leading product that had devolved into a commodity. You don’t, however, see too many analysts re-visiting that opinion as they frequently offer buy recommendations on shares.

SanDisk is also a company that I’ve very infrequently owned, but almost always consider adding shares when I have cash reserves and need some more technology positions in my portfolio. After a week of lots of assignments both are now the case and while its dividend isn’t as generous as that of McDonalds, it serves as a good time for entry and offers a very attractive option premium even during a week that it goes ex-dividend.

Despite a 10% share price increase since earnings, it is still about 15% below its price when it warned on earnings just a week prior to the event and received a belated downgrade from “buy to hold.” WIth continuing upside potential, this is a position that I would consider either leaving some shares uncovered or using more than one strike level for call sales

Most often when considering a trade involving a company about to report earnings and selling put options, my preference is to avoid taking ownership of shares. Generally, put sales shouldn’t be undertaken unless willing to accept the potential liability of ownership, but sometimes you would prefer to only take the reward and not the risk, if you can get away with doing so.

Additionally, I generally look for opportunities where I can receive a 1% ROI for the sale of a weekly put contract that is a strike level below the lower range of the implied move determined by the option market.

However, in the cases of Hewlett Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and The Gap (NYSE:GPS) that 1% ROI is right at the lower boundary, but I would still consider the prospect of put sales because I wouldn’t shy away from share ownership in the event of an adverse price move.

The Gap, which makes sharp moves on a regular basis as it still reports monthly sales, did so just a week earlier. It seems to also regularly find itself alternating in the eyes of investors who send shares higher or lower as if each month brings deep systemic change to the company. However, taking a longer term view or simply looking at its chart, it’s clear that shares have a way of just returning to a fleece-lik

e comfortable level in the $39-$41 range.

In the event of an adverse price movement and facing assignment, puts can be rolled over targeting the next same store sales week as an expiration date or simply taking ownership of shares and then using that same date as a time frame for call sales. If rolling over puts I would be mindful of an April ex-dividend date and would consider taking ownership of shares prior to that time if put contracts aren’t likely to expire.

Since I have room for more than a single new technology position this week, Hewlett Packard warrants a look, as what was once derisively referred to as “old tech” is once again respectable. While I would consider starting the exposure through the sale of puts, with an ex-dividend date coming up in just a few weeks, I’d be more inclined to take assignment in the event of an adverse price move after earnings.

Finally, there’s still reason to believe that energy prices are going to continue to confound most everyone. The coupling and de-coupling of oil to and from the stock market, respectively has become too unpredictable to try to harness. However, given the back and forth seen in prices over the past month as a floor may have been put in oil prices, there may be some opportunity in considering a pairs trade, such as Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO) and United Continental (NYSE:UAL).

United Continental and other airlines have essentially been mirror images to the moves in oil, although not always for clearly understandable reasons, as the relative role of hedging can vary among airlines, although United has reportedly closed out its hedged positions and may be a more pure trading candidate on the basis of fuel prices..

While it’s not too likely that either of these stocks will move in the same direction concurrently, the short term volatility in their prices and the extremely appealing premiums may allow the chance to prosper in one while awaiting the other’s turn to do the same.

The idea is to purchase shares and sell calls of both as a coupled trade with the expectation that they would be decoupled as oil rises or falls and one position or another is either rolled over or assigned, as a result. The remaining position is then managed on its own merits or possibly even re-coupled.

As with earnings related trades that I make that are usually agnostic to the relative merits of the company, focusing only on the risk – reward proposition, this trade is not one that cares too much about the merits of either company. Rather, it cares about their responses to the unpredictable movements in oil price that have been occurring on daily and even on an intra-day basis of late.

Traditional Stocks: JP Morgan Chase, Marathon Oil

Momentum Stocks: United Continental Holdings, Yahoo

Double Dip Dividend: BGC Partners (2/26), McDonalds (2/26), SanDisk (2/26)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Hewlett Packard (2/24 PM), The Gap (2/26 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.

Weekend Update – December 14, 2014

On a cruise ship you only know the answer to the question of “How low can you go” once you’ve met the physical limits of your body and the limit of your ability to balance yourself.

Other than losing a little self-respect, maybe a little embarrassment in front of a bunch of drunken strangers, there’s not too much downside to playing the game.

When it comes to the price of oil the answer isn’t so clear, mostly because the answer seemed so clear for each of the past few weeks and has turned out to be anything other than clear. Besides the lack of clarity, the game has consequences that go well beyond self-respect and opening yourself up to embarrassment.

While we all know that at some point the law of “Supply and Demand” will take precedence over the intrusion of a cartel, the issue becomes one of time and how long it will take to set in motion the actions that are in response to the great opportunities created by low cost energy.

Until a few days ago we thought we were in recently uncharted territory, believing that the reduction in oil prices was due to an increase in supply that itself was simply due to increasing production in the United States.

However, with Friday’s release of China’s Industrial Production data, as well as an earlier remark by a Saudi Arabian Oil Minister, there was reason to now believe that the demand side of the equation may not have been as robust as we had thought.

While there’s not a strong correlation between sharply declining oil prices and recession, that has to now be considered, at least for much of the rest of the world.

The United States, on the other hand, may be going in a very different direction as is the rest of the world, until such factors as the relative strength of the US dollar begin to catch up with our good fortunes, as an example of yet another kind of cycle that has real meaning on an every day basis in an ever more inter-connected world.

While there may not be a substantive decoupling between the US and other world economies, at the moment all roads seem to be leading to our shores and cheap oil can keep that road a one way path longer than is usually the case with economic cycles.

When considering the amount of evil introduced into the world as a result of oil profits supporting nefarious activities and various political agenda in countries many of us never even knew existed, the idea that energy self-reliance is paramount strategically becomes tangible. It also should make us wonder why we’ve essentially ignored doing anything for the past 40 years and why we would delay, even for another second the ability to break free from a position of submissiveness.

While most free market capitalists don’t like the idea of a government hand, there is something to be said for government support of US oil production and exploration activities particularly when they are suffering from low prices due to their successes and might have to curtail activity, as some in the world would like to see.

Insofar as the success of US producers adds to the tools with which we may face the rest of the sometimes less than friendly world, there is reason for our government to act as an anti-cartel a

t times and keep prices artificially low, while protecting local producers from short term pain they endure that helps to make the nation lass susceptible to pressures from other nations who are more than happy to control our destiny.

Great time to increase the Strategic Petroleum reserve, anyone?

In the meantime, though, that pain is being shared among investors in most every sector, as the volatility index, which usually moves in a direction opposite the market, is again moving higher as it has a habit of doing every two months, or so.

As an option seller that’s one bar I like seeing moved higher and higher, until someone asks the obvious question”

“How high will it go?”

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

From just about every perspective the stocks considered this week reads as a “Who’s Who of Losers.”

Sometimes there are good reasons, other times the reasons aren’t quite as clear, but even as oil prices may be playing a game of “how low can you go,” individual stocks across all sectors are being taken along for a nasty ride, that thus far has been nothing more than a 3.5% move from its recent high.

McDonalds (NYSE:MCD) is an example of a stock that continually finds itself on the wrong side of $100 and periodically finds itself on the wrong side of public opinion, as well. At the moment, it’s on the wrong side of each of those challenges and there is probably an association between the two.

While the news can get worse for McDonalds, a DJIA component, as it releases more US and international sales data, it is finally doing something that its franchisees have been wanting for quite a while, as it returns to some sense of simplicity in its menu. That simplicity will help reign in costs that can then reign in customers who have to balance cost and health consciousness.

Another DJIA component, Verizon (NYSE:VZ) also had a bad week, as it lowered profit forecasts and is feeling the pain of its competition with other carriers. It is also feeling the pain of underwriting the true costs of the wildly popular iPhone 6.

Having patiently waited for shares to return to the $47.50 level, it breezed right through that, heading straight to its low point for 2014.

With an upcoming dividend and option premiums increasing along with the volatility of its share price, Verizon is again becoming appealing, although there will be the matter off those earnings next month, that we’ve already been warned about, but are still likely to come as a surprise when reality hits.

Yet another DJIA component, Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) was on everyone’s “worst company and worst CEO” list and was even famously Jim Chanos’ short of the year back in July 2013. As most know, shares have traded well above those July 2013 levels and even with its recent 20% decline, it is still well above those levels.

While Caterpillar has some Chinese exposure there is often a reaction that is out of proportion to that exposure and that brings opportunity. I have long liked shares at $85, but it has been a long time since that level has been seen, much to Jim Chaos’ dismay. On the other hand, $90 may be close enough to consider initiating a position following this most recent round of weakness.

While EMC Corporation (NYSE:EMC) isn’t close to being a member of the DJIA it certainly wasn’t shielded from the losses, as it fell 6.5% on the week that was harsh to the technology sector, despite it being difficult to draw a straight line connecting oil and technology sectors.

Just a week or two ago I was willing to buy EMC shares at $30, but now, as with so many stocks, the question of “how low will it go?” must be raised, even if there is no logical reason to suspect anything lower, as long as it’s majority owned VMWare (NYSE:VMW) can do better than a 12% decline for the week.

The China story is reflected in 3 stocks highlighted this week and none of the stories are very good. Neither Joy Global (NYSE:JOY), Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) nor YUM Brands (NYSE:YUM) had very good weeks, as a combination of stories from China struck at the core of their respective businesses.

Las Vegas Sands goes ex-dividend this week and despite its name, has significant interests in Macao. The gaming news coming from Macao has been a stream of negativity for the past 4 months, including such issues as the impact of smoking bans on casino income.

I already own 2 lots of Las Vegas Sands and have traded in and out of some additional lots these past few months, It’s Chinese exposure certainly has risk at the moment, but the dividend and premiums at this very low price level can serve as a good entry point or even to average down on existing shares.

YUM Brands has had years of experience in the Chinese marketplace and has had numerous challenges and obstacles come its way. Public health scares of airborne diseases, tainted food supplies and more, in addition to the normal cycles that economies go through.

Somehow, YUM Brands has been able to survive an onslaught of challenges, although it has been relatively slow in boun

cing back from the latest food safety related issue. It lowered its profit forecasts this past week and took a very large hit, however, it subsequently recovered about half of the loss during the final two days of the week when the broader market was substantially lower.

Joy Global reports earnings next week and tumbled on Friday upon release of Chinese government data. The drop would seem consistent with Joy Global’s interests in China. However, what has frequently been curious is that Joy Global often paints a picture of its activity and importantly its forward activity in a light different from “official” government reports.

Following Friday’s pessimistic report from China, Joy Global plunged to its 5 year low in advance of earnings. Ideally, that is a more favorable condition if considering a position in advance of earnings, particularly if selling puts, as the concern for further drops can amplify the premiums on the puts and potentially provide a more appealing entry point for shares.

Blackberry (NASDAQ:BBRY) also reports earnings next week and it, too, has fallen significantly in the past month, having declined nearly 20% in that time.

I’m not really certain that anyone knows what its CEO John Chen has in mind for the company, but most respect his ability to do something constructive with the carcass that he was left with, upon arriving on the scene.

My intuition tells me that his final answer will be a sale to a Chinese company, as a last resort, and that will understandably be met with lots of resistance on both security and nationalism concerns. Until then, there’s always hope for making some money from the shares, but once that kind of sale is scuttled, the Blackberry story will have sailed.

For now, however, the option market is implying an 11.6% move in shares upon earnings news. Meanwhile, a 1.5% weekly ROI can be achieved through the sale of puts if shares do not fall more than 15%

Finally, after nothing but horrid news from the energy sector over the past weeks, at some point there comes a time when it just seems appropriate to pull the trigger and commit to a turnaround that is hopefully coming sooner, rather than later.

There is no shortage of names to choose from among, in that regard, but the one that stands out for me is the one that was somewhat ahead of the curve and has taken more pain than others, by virtue of having eliminated its dividend, which had been unsustainably high for quite a while.

Seadrill (NYSE:SDRL) is now simply an offshore drilling and services company, that is beleaguered like all of the rest, but not any longer encumbered by its dividend.

What it offers may be a good example of just how low something can go and still be a viable and respectable company, while offering a very attractive option premium that reflects the risk or the opportunity that is implied to come along with ownership of shares.

Although the bar on Seadrill’s price may still be lowered if more sector bad news is forthcoming, Seadrill may also be the first poised to pop higher once that

cycle reawakens.

Traditional Stocks: Caterpillar, EMC Corporation, McDonalds, Verizon

Momentum: Seadrill, YUM Brands

Double Dip Dividend: Las Vegas Sands (12/16 $0.50)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Joy Global (12/17 AM), Blackberry (12/19 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.

Weekend Update – November 23, 2014

About a month ago we got a much needed gift from Federal Reserve Governor James Bullard, who at the depths of a nearly 10% market decline gave some reason to believe that the Federal Reserve may not have been done with its tapering policy.

Since then, he’s back-peddled just a bit, appropriately, in light of the fact that tapering has now come to its planned end.

The market, however, never looked back and took full advantage of that market propelling gift.

Subsequently, a few weeks ago we got another little gift, this time from far away, as the Bank of Japan announced its own version of Quantitative Easing just in time to battle a 20 year period of economic stagnation.

Since then there haven’t been too many others coming to our shores bearing market moving gifts, as for now, it appears as if our own Federal Reserve won’t be acting as a primary catalyst for the stock market’s expansion. Once you get a taste for gifts it can be hard to go on without them continuing to stream in on a regular basis.

What Bullard and the Bank of Japan offered was probably what was in mind when the concept of “a little help from my friends” found its way to a sheet of music.

But what has anyone done for us lately?

This week was one of an almost comatose nature where not even an FOMC Statement release could jar the market. Having already matched a 45 year record of 5 consecutive days without a greater than 0.1% move, it seemed as if we were poised for some kind of an over the top reaction, but none was to be found.

That is, until our friends from China and the European Union decided to show their friendship and gave indications that central bank money was not a problem and would be there to support lagging economies, although the trickle down benefit of supporting equity markets seems like a welcome idea on this side of a couple of oceans.

The Bank of China’s announcement of a reduction in interest rates came as quite a surprise and at some point will get cynics wondering what is really going on in China that might require that kind of a boost from the central bank.

But that’s next week’s problem.

For today, that was a wonderful gift from the country that invented the term “capitalist roader,” perhaps as a sign of affection for what the United States represented. Amazingly, the manipulation of interest rates has seemingly replaced re-education as a means of effecting change.

While economic data from China has long been suspect, what should really be suspect is when Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank starts making comments about the lengths to which the ECB will go in order to achieve its mandate.

He has had a great record of hyperbole and has had an equally great ability for being able to move markets on the basis of what was consistently interpreted as a pledge to introduce a form of Quantitative Easing.

He has also been great at not following through with the unbridled support that he has consistently offered.

Was he being serious this time around? After a number of false starts and promises Draghi should have given some overt sign that this time was going to be different. I know that I can trust a man dressed for casual Friday more than I do one in a beautifully tailored Armani suit, so that could have been a good place to begin demonstrating how this time will be different.

For the U.S. stock market, it probably doesn’t really matter, as long as we can keep coming up with gifts from our other friends on a very regular basis. If not the EU, perhaps Russia will be next to grease our market climb through its central banking policies.

After that it gets a little fuzzy, but that’s a problem for 2015.

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

The most recent earnings season has had mixed news for retailers. The upper end continues to do well and there are signs of life in the middle range as well, however specialty retailers continue to struggle.

The Gap (NYSE:GPS) is one of those struggling as it awaits its new CEO after having released earnings this past week. However, in the past 2 years the Gap has been very much of a yo-yo, as it alternates regularly between disappointing sales news and optimistic forecasts. It does so monthly, so those ups and downs come more often than for many other retailers that have abandoned the practice of reporting monthly same store sales.

After this most recent decline, having just recently recovered from the loss encountered upon the announcement of the departure of its current CEO, along with some weak monthly sales reports, it looks as if is ready for yet another cycle of ups and downs. Because of its continuing to offer monthly reports, the Gap offers enhanced option premiums on a monthly basis, as well, in addition to respectable premiums the remainder of the time.

Companies that are part of the DJIA don’t usually offering a very compelling reason to try and capture an upcoming dividend along with the concurrent sale of a call option. Most often the option is appropriately priced and there is very little opportunity to try to exploit some inefficiency in that pricing, particularly when using an in the money strike.

This week, however, there may be some opportunity in both Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD), which appropriately enough, tend to already go together.

While McDonald’s is recovering a bit from a recent share drop after some news of activist involvement in the company, it may finally make the run for the $100 level and stay there for more than just a couple of months. It’s dividend is attractive and as long as there is continuing activist interest its option premiums may continue to also be attractive, even in weeks when the dividend is offered.

Coca-Cola, on the other hand, is trading just slightly below its one year high, which isn’t generally a place that I like to enter a position. That however, can be said for many stocks as the market continually makes its own new highs.

With Warren Buffett lending his support, it’s not terribly easy for any activist activity to try and move this behemoth, which along with McDonald’s may be on the wrong side of food trends. Still those businesses are not going to unravel from one minute to the next. With a short term time frame in mind, Coca-Cola, even at these levels may offer a respectable award for the risk, particularly with the dividend in mind this week.

While Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI) doesn’t go ex-dividend this week, it has quite a bit in common with Lorillard (NYSE:LO), which does.

Both are subjects of takeover bids and both are trading substantially lower than the current value of those bids, which are both comprised of cash and stock offers. It’s a little difficult to fully understand the relatively large gaps between their closing prices and the offer values, although regulatory and anti-trust obstacles may be playing roles.

Reportedly the Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI) bid for Lorillard is progressing and is expected to be completed sometime in the first half of 2015. Meanwhile, Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) has essentially said “tell us what assets to sell and we’ll do it” to the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, as a current Halliburton shareholder, it also has a large anti-trust termination fee as part of the proposed deal.

As a result of the activity and uncertainty revolving around the proposed buy-out the option premiums in Baker Hughes are higher than they have been in many years, reflecting also some of the risk that a deal will not be completed. However, as with the businesses at Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, that doesn’t appear to be likely in the very near time frame, as there will likely be considerable time before the Department of Justice gets involved in a meaningful and overt fashion.

Lorillard, on the other hand, has not had any enhancements of its option premiums as a result of the planned buy-out by Reynolds American. That would indicate a degree of certainty that the deal will be completed, yet there is still a considerable gap between its current price and the value implied in the offer.

My shares of Lorillard were assigned this week, despite about three days attempting to roll the shares over in order to secure the very generous dividend, which is expected to continue after the takeover. The inability to rollover the shares is further reflection of the frustrations created by the extremely low volatility and larger than normal spreads between bid and ask prices, as option volume continues to be very light.

With still about a $5 gap between those prices, Lorillard has upside potential, but also carries the risk of unexpected regulatory action. If purchasing shares of Lorillard to capture the dividend and I likely try to use near or in the money options, in an attempt to serially collect small weekly premiums, while waiting for something definitive.

Lexmark (NYSE:LXK) also goes ex-dividend this week. The last time I purchased shares was on November 25, 2013, so it seems like it may be a good way to celebrate that anniversary

. Perhaps not to coincidentally, the last purchase was also dividend related.

Lexmark, once the printer division for International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM), took a page out of IBM’s strategy and completely re-invented itself. In a realization that printers were nothing more than a commodity, it has become a service and solutions oriented provider and its stock price hasn’t regretted that decision.

It does trade with some volatility, though, and it offers a good option premium in reflection of that opportunity. While earnings are still two months away, it frequently has large earnings related moves that can be managed through the use of monthly option contracts, sometimes one cycle beyond the earnings date.

If looking for volatility, you may not need to look any further than Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEARCA:GDX). While gold has been on an essentially uni-directional downward path for much of the past 6 months and it has been difficult to find any credible proponents of its ownership, it appears as if there may be a battle brewing for where it is headed next. That battle creates significantly improved option premiums, which had been in the doldrums for much of the past 6 months.

As with the underlying metal, the miners can have significant volatility and risk and should be considered for use only as part of the speculative portion of a portfolio and in proportion to the risk it may entail.

As with some fortunate companies in the bio-technology group, sometimes speculative ventures lead to tangible products. That is certainly the case for Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD).

After a brief uproar about the yearly cost of treatment with its extremely effective Hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi, it has rebounded with ease. Congressional hearings that sought to get some spotlight for protecting the public’s interests resulted in a sharp and quick decline, but the reality has been that the costs of treatment pale in comparison to the costs of traditional treatment. Subsequently, Gilead keeps refining the protocols and adding to the profit margins, while achieving better patient outcomes for an incredibly prevalent chronic disease.

As expected, because of the continuing concerns about price and the manner in which Gilead’s price increase has been so closely associated with its Hepatitis C efforts, it is at risk for being overly reliant on a single drug or class of drugs., However, as with many suggested trades, the outlook tends to be very short term and hopefully avoids some of the risks associated with longer term cycles of ownership.

GameStop (NYSE:GME) did what it so often does after earnings. It made a large move, this time sharply lower this past Friday. With each earnings cycle and frequently in-between, questions arise regarding the business model and how GameStop can continue to survive in the current environment. That question has been asked for about a decade and GameStop has been one of the most heavily shorted stocks throughout that time.

GameStop tends to do well in the final month of the year, although it may simply be carried along for the ride, as the broad market tends to perform well at that time. Following its sharp decline, a reasonable way to consider participation would be through the sale of out of the money puts. If taking that route, this is a stock that I wouldn’t be adverse to owning if faced with possibl

e assignment, although there is usually sufficient activity and volume to be able to roll over those puts in an attempt to avoid assignment and wait out a bounce higher in shares, while continuing to collect premiums.

Finally, this is yet another week in which to consider the sale of Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) put contracts. While it wasn’t really in the news very much this week, other than announcing some less than spectacular enhancements to its messaging options, it has been developing some support in the $39 area and offers an excellent premium in recognition of the risk involved.

The risk is the unwanted assignment and then ownership of its shares. However, what makes Twitter an appealing put option sale trade is that in the event of the prospects of assignment, it may be relatively easy to rollover to a forward week and collect additional premium without taking ownership of shares.

At a time when for many stocks the bid and ask spreads are widening and volume is shrinking, Twitter isn’t really suffering those fates, which makes the possibility of avoiding assignment higher.

For the past 3 weeks I have been rolling over Twitter puts even when not facing assignment, occasionally adjusting the strike prices in an effort to achieve an additional 1% weekly ROI on the position. Doing so may be tempting fate, but in Twitter’s brief history as a publicly traded company it has shown the ability to both come well off its highs as well as to bounce well beyond its lows. All that’s necessary is the ability to put elation or frustration into suspended animation and play the numbers, without regard to the rumors and dysfunction that may be swirling.

Traditional Stocks: The Gap

Momentum: Baker Hughes, GameStop, Gilead, Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF, Twitter

Double Dip Dividend: Coca-Cola (11/26), Lexmark (11/26), Lorillard (11/26), McDonald’s (11/26)

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.