2013 Strategic Tax Losses

It’s that time of the year to sadly sit and accept some reality and see if there are any strategic tax losses to offset trading gains. That is a gift in the tax code and just about the only thing that makes taking a loss palatable for me.

Before I go on, I’m not an accountant. I’m not even a Pediatric Dentist anymore. I’m not really certain what I am, other than to be someone faced with the same pragmatic issues as most investors, even in a year that everything seemed to just go higher and higher in share price.

Before considering what strategic tax losses I may decide to take this year, as the calendar is growing short, I find it useful to look back in time at the tax loss selections in 2012. .

The strategic tax loss sales I sustained last year were  on specific lots of Chesapeake Energy ($17.36),  Hewlett Packard ($13.66), ProShares UltraShort Silver ($51.09), Groupon ($4.79) and Potash ($40.07). The fact that other lots of those stocks may have delivered profits in 2012 is irrelevant and didn’t soothe the angst of parting under such sad circumstances. (CHK), (HPQ), (ZSL), (GRPN), (POT)

So where are they now after a year that has seen about a 28.5% gain in the S&P 500? Is there life after loss?

Their closing prices on December 24, 2013 were: Chesapeake Energy ($27.61), Hewlett Packard ($28.18), ProSharesUltraShort Silver ($90.02), Groupon ($11.83) and Potash ($32.82).

With the exception of Potash, all of those have had more than a 28% gain from their sales price and, in fact, more than a 28% gain from their purchase prices, as well.

The reason this isn’t too surprising is for the same reason that the “Dogs of the Dow” theory has been a reasonably reliable prediction tool. In general, if you invest in a company that isn’t likely to disappear in the near future or go bankrupt, there’s a very good chance that it will rebound strongly after a period of abysmal performance. Decent companies tend not to stay at depressed levels if the market around them is healthy. There are obviously exceptions to that generality, but how many stocks don’t display regular ups and downs in the charts, even to the point of periodic extremes?

Having looked, over about 30 years of investing results, very few “losers” failed to redeem themselves. That may be due in part to serendipity, but also from shunning really speculative issues. Back in the days when I had a stock broker, and I really did like and respect him, it was actually maddening to see how frequently stocks that had been sold for a loss had recovered. Given the choice between taking a tax credit or a stock loss or paying more taxes because of greater gains, I would take the latter every time.

However, my broker was a firm believer in taking losses if they hit the 10% level, which is a very traditional approach. To his credit, he followed his rules and was consistent in his application of those rules.

Consistency is what is ultimately one of the most important things when managing investments, even though there may be other paths to the same destination.

What I had also noticed was that there was no guarantee that the proceeds from the sale of losers past would then be recycled into shares of winners. Sometimes losers begat losers and sometimes losers begat winners. To a large degree the direction of the overall market was a factor in where individual stocks would go, especially if looking at an entire portfolio. However, even beautifully woven theses didn’t always go as envisioned and occasionally losses mounted, even though the intentions were honorable, but restricted by protocol.

In hindsight I always believe that when holding a loser I should have followed that 10% rule, but then you realize that the real dynamic at play is deciding whether to follow your humble or arrogant side into battle.

The arrogant side believes that it can take the money from the sale of a loser, re-invest it and recover the losses. The humble side wonders how it could be that someone so stupid as to have made the original investment in the first place and then watch it go down so much, could now possibly be smart enough to immediately pick a winner, instead of doing the same thing all over again.

For me, it’s hard not to take the humble side’s argument. Logic prevails in that argument over blind hope.

So where to begin?

Assuming that you are in the highest Federal tax brackets in 2013, the short term tax rate is 39.6%, although the rate will vary from 10 to 39.6% and doesn’t include state tax rates, if any. 

As always, your losses are limited to $3,000 in excess of your reported gains, with the ability to carry over additional losses to subsequent tax years. I’m desperately hoping that no one is reporting net losses, but rather looking to reduce their taxable liability.

That means that selling a losing stock gives you a credit against your gains, which includes option premium derived income, which is always taxed at the short term rate. If you do a lot of covered option selling you then may very well have a need or at least a desire to see whether there are any steps that can be taken to reduce your tax liability.

To make the decision of whether to take a strategic loss you have to look at the probabilities of various outcomes.

The first is the 100% probability that if taking the loss you will get a credit to your tax liability, subject to Wash Sales Rules. It’s hard to beat those odds, but if you do practice the serial kind of buy/write trades, as I often do, you also need to have a very good understanding of the wash sales rule and be very mindful of the 30 day window on either side of your strategic tax loss trade.

The next step takes some calculation.

As an example, I’m going to look at JC Penney (JCP) shares that I bought on July 30, 2013 at $16.16 and currently trading at $8.75. These values are not adjusted to reflect any option premiums collected. It doesn’t take a mathematics savant to know that is a loss well in excess of 10%. If Bernard Baruch were still alive he would slap me silly, as corporal punishment was still acceptable in his day.

The potential tax related advantage is based upon your tax rate and whether the holding is a short term or long term holding, with a one year period being the dividing line between the two. As a short term holding the JC Penney position is entitled up to a 39.6% credit against capital gains. In this case that credit can be worth up to $2.93 per share.

However, the next step involves the second probability in the equation. What do you believe is the chance that JC Penney shares will of their own trading add $2.93 to its current share price. How likely is it that shares will gain 33.5%? There may be company specific challenges, as well as broader economic challenges to consider. But there is also that thought that this could be the year to atone for past performance. Redemption, after all, isn’t limited to Hewlett Packard.

If you believe that may happen within your lifetime or an acceptable portion of that lifetime, you may decide to forego the certainty of a short term tax credit.

Similar considerations may be applied to shares of Petrobras (PBR) and Mosaic (MOS), both of which I’m considering selling for their tax benefits. However, as compared to JC Penney, the hurdle for price recovery to match the tax benefit is quite a bit lower, at 18.5% and 11.7%, respectively. 

Of course, if you’re right, even at that new higher price you can still qualify for a tax loss, however, you may find yourself looking at a much lower credit, if the short term loss becomes a long term loss. As Clint Eastwood might have said, “are you feeling lucky?” If you can grab some option premiums along the way you can help to make your own luck, but whatever the outcome, it is also deferred by a year to 2015, which itself may entail further opportunity costs.

Then again, just look at last year’s losers. Unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, recovery wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.



Bottom line? Ask your tax advisor, but do so soon.

 

Addendum:  An additional factor that I utilize in determining which losing positions to sell is related to another rule that I follow. That is the rule to not hold more than three individual lots of a specific stock. There is no hard science to that rule, but it is related to the desire to not have a specific stock be over-represented in the portfolio.

Occasionally, I will elect to sell a second or third lot of a specific stock because I believe there is greater opportunity for picking up replacement lots at lower prices (after the 30 day period required by the Wash Sales Rule has passed) and selling calls at the lower strikes, than there is in waiting for shares to rebound. In such cases I hope that the cumulative tax benefit and recurring option premiums on lower priced shares will be greater than the benefit derived from continuing to hold original shares.

That is why I included Mosaic and Petrobras shares in the illustrative table. However, individuals should look at their own annual profits and see which of their holdings may allow them the greatest certainty for benefit if sold for a loss, as compared to their own expectations for share price recovery. While JC Penney may be a strategic tax loss for one, it may not be so for another.

This year I will not make official “Tax Loss” sales recommendations, in recognition of the fact that some subscribers also have positions inside of tax deferred accounts. Additionally, as opposed to the past, I will continue, therefore, to follow those positions and track their performance.

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Weekend Update – December 22, 2013

With word this week of the passing of a famedend of the worldprophet, it may be logical to wonderwhat now?”

Is there life after the destruction of the world is canceled?

As far as we know even after the most dire of events there is a future yet to come, but like anything in the future it can never be known, even if clues abound, but that won’t stop the predictions

The overwhelming opinion whenever thought of the end of Quantitative Easing was considered was negative, as it alone was thought to be propping up the stock market. As with those preparing for earthly catastrophe, investors of that belief took the opportunity to sell positions, because as we all know in the postapocalyptic world, cash is king.

But the clarion call announcing the coming of the dreaded taper finally came and it turns out not to be the end of the world. However, as opposed to that now deceased selfanointed prophet, after two recent failed predictions of the earth’s destruction, he decided to get out of the prophesy business. That’s not likely to be the case for those who prophesied market doom in the event that the Federal Reserve punch bowl was depleted.

Those predictions will keep coming.



I don’t know what challenges are on the near term horizon but I’m hopeful that there will be a sea of calm for a while, as the DJIA is again at an all time high. Strictly speaking there is still time for a Santa Claus Rally this week, although Ben Bernanke may have provided the rally last week, helping the market recover from the depths of a less than 2% decline.

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

I don’t really know what the next catalyst will be to propel shares of Apple (AAPL) higher, even as there are renewed calls for $700. Ever since Carl Icahn entered into the equation shares have fared very nicely, despite having given up some of those gains over the past few days. What I do know is that for those that bought shares at their price peak the last day to have qualified for short term capital losses was nearly 3 months ago. At that time a sale would have resulted in a loss of about $225. However, another way to look at it is that the sale afforded as much as a nearly $90 tax credit for some investors on the Federal side alone. Adding that credit to the sale price brings shares above Friday’s closing price. To a large degree selling pressure has been greatly relieved going forward. That’s good enough for me to consider adding shares going into the final week’s of trading for the year, particularly since the last three quarters have predictably seen a rise in shares in the 6 weeks prior to its exdividend date.

Annaly Mortgage (NLY) is one of the first companies I bought when starting to manage my own portfolio, but I haven’t owned shares in more than 5 years. I don’t think I ever really understood the strategy behind Annaly, as I’ve never really understood bonds, other than to know that bond traders are probably the smartest of all, even if performance doesn’t always indicate that to be the case. For most, the appeal of Annaly has been its dividend, which was just reduced, as its stock price has fallen on hard times in the year since the passing of its cofounder and CEO.

Although I don’t spend too much time looking at charts, for those that follow MACD as an indicator, Annaly’s share price crossed over the signal line, providing a bullish signal. For me, the signal is this week’s dividend, some share price stability and an option premium enhancing the dividend. Less leveraged and more hedged than in the past this may be a good time to begin interest in Annaly once again, despite a rising rate environment.

As long as I’m not going to spend too much time looking at charts, I may as well mention that Cree (CREE) did catch my attention, as it too crossed over the MACD signal line. It’s price chart is also interesting as it demonstrates some significant and sudden moves up and down over the past few months. I think that the stock is poised for a sharp move higher and this may be one of those infrequent occasions that I don’t immediately sell call options on shares, or may not cover all shares. Its lighting products are increasingly capturing aisle space and newspaper mention as incandescent bulbs fade away.

Despite still owning a much more expensive lot of Walter Energy (WLT), it has become a favorite stock of late as it has regularly bounced higher and then dropped lower, helping to create attractive option premiums at a time when those are rare finds. Of course, with those premiums comes significant risk. For those that have the tolerance it’s shares can be rewarding, but I would temper some of the reward by greatly reducing the risk by using deeper in the money strike prices and short term contracts, although expanded contracts may actually level out some of the day to day risk and still provide a meaningful premium.

Target (TGT) hasn’t recovered quite as quickly from its recent earnings drop as many, including me, believed would be the case. A strong day Wednesday, undoubtedly buoyed by the postFOMC buying hysteria, was quickly quelled the following day on news of Target customers having their credit card security breached. What I find encouraging is how quickly Target has responded and how they are using the incident as an excuse for an additional 10% discount in the days before Christmas, hoping to lure even more shoppers for price cuts that probably would have been offered even without the security breach.

A subtopic this week is food as represented by YUM Brands (YUM), Campbell Soup (CPB), Whole Foods (WFM) and Darden Restaurants (DRI).

YUM Brands has continued to show great resilience to news, which invariably is greeted with negative reactions that prove to have been short sighted. Whatever the obstacle or whatever the Chinacentric thesis, YUM has shown that once people get a taste for fast food it’s really difficult to break the addiction. Short of widespread public health outbreaks in China, there are few barriers to performance. YUM Brands, besides offering a nice option premium and going exdividend later in the month, has continued seeing its beta fall and may offer less risk than before if facing a general market decline.

Whole Foods (WFM) which had been on a one way upward climb since its shares split has come down about 5% since its recent earnings report. It is embarking on a more mainstream expansion strategy while also reenforcing its perceived commitment to a higher standard, as it announced plans to remove a very popular yogurt brand from its stores. While the exit of Jim Chanos from a long position last month may be a signal to some, the performances of stocks he sold and bought since the filing date has been mixed, at best. I’ve grown somewhat tired of waiting for shares to retreat and now think that its recent earnings related drop may be all in store, especially in an otherwise flat or rising market. Like a number of other positions this week its MACD indicates a recent buy signal which may complement an otherwise weak option premium and dividend.

Campbell Soup (CPB) may be an anachronism. Once ubiquitous in households, a panoply of alternatives, including those perceived to be more consistent with healthy lifestyles are available and come without cobwebs. On the positive side of the ledger Campbell has an appealing dividend right after New Years, offers an attractive option premium, low beta and it too, has recently crossed the MACD signal line. Since you don’t have to buy the product to qualify for share ownership

Finally, Among the conversations these past weeks has been talk of the worst CEO of 2013. While Clarence Otis of Darden Restaurants. was only a runner up he has fallen a long way in recent years. Shares moved up nicely several months ago when news of an activist investor’s interest became known. Shares did less well after announcing disappointing earnings at its flagship Red Lobster and Olive Garden units. However, under activist pressure Darden plans to spin off its low growth properties. Their plan may not be enough to satisfy the activists and Darden may need to explore more measures, including exploiting its real estate holdings. The good news is that Darden goes exdividend during the January 2014 cycle and appears to be able to maintain that dividend.

Traditional Stocks: Apple, Campbell Soup, Darden Restaurants, Target, Whole Foods

Momentum Stocks: Cree, Walter Energy, Yum Brands

Double Dip Dividend: Annaly Mortgage (exdiv 12/27)

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.

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Turn DRIP Into Flow with PRIP

(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet.com)

The idea of utilizing a DRIP strategy toward achieving asset growth is an appealing one. Dividend Re-investment Plans offer the opportunity to take an income stream and convert it into more shares without cost. For the inveterate buy and hold investor the appeal may be compounded by the thought of actual compounding.

For most investors, at least those of moderate means, that would mean adding fractional shares and certainly odd lot shares. It might also mean adding shares in a company at a time that you wouldn’t ordinarily want to be adding shares of that particular company. Regardless of those advocating a dollar cost averaging approach, it would take a large portfolio of dividend paying stocks with payment dates broadly distributed to achieve a sufficient sampling of the market’s ups and downs to really cost average. Otherwise one is at the mercy of timing if dividend dates are clustered on a quarterly basis.

Using the 2013 S&P 500 average for dividend yields that also means a quarterly income stream of approximately 0.5% per eligible position. For example, anyone re-investing quarterly dividends on 1000 shares of Microsoft (MSFT), which offers a dividend yield nearly 51.7% higher than the S&P 500 average, would be able to add approximately 7.6 shares.

While there is certainly a body of evidence that suggests the out-performance of dividend paying stocks, I have never fully understood the allure of dividends. The opportunity to pay taxes in exchange for the privilege of being able to reduce your stock’s cost basis may be an apt summary of the transaction. But for many the dividend represents a tangible expression of ownership and sharing of good fortune. What better way to reciprocate that good fortune than by re-investing the dividend for even more shares?

However, quarterly distributions, small distributions, and being held hostage by timing of dividend payments conspire to make the DRIP strategy inefficient for those interested in compounded growth, or for those that don’t have the patience to wait many years.

While Albert Einstein purportedly referred to compounding as the greatest of inventions, he would have added some additional superlatives had he known about the use of premiums derived from option sales to fuel share purchases and asset growth.

Rather than relying on the muted power of dividends, selling options, on core holdings, such as Microsoft can return a nice weekly, monthly or yearly premium and can form the basis for anyone to design their own “Premium Reinvestment Plan (PRIP).”

In general, I prefer the use of weekly options, but that may require more maintenance and attention than many individual investors are willing to dedicate. However, as an example, anyone purchasing 1000 shares of Microsoft at Friday’s close of $36.69 could have sold 10 weekly contracts at a $37 strike price for $490. Compare that to the $280 quarterly dividend. Of course the shares may be assigned or the contract may expire, allowing the holder to look for additional opportunities to sell new contracts, perhaps even holding shares at the time of the ex-dividend date and doubly reaping rewards.

While the option premium income can’t be re-invested in additional shares at no cost, what it can do is serve as a building block for additional share purchases in any position desired, not just the income producing stock. Furthermore, that purchase of new or additional shares can be done at a time that seems most propitious, rather than being on a pre-determined date. The cumulative impact of selling option contracts on portfolio holdings can be to generate enough income to purchase entirely new positions and in sufficient quantity to have their own income producing option contracts sold.

Income producing income.

If you’re a buy and hold kind of an investor and don’t really like the idea of being subject to assignment on a short term basis then look at the longer term option contracts. The beauty of the derivatives market is that there is no shortage of time frames nor of strike levels available for the investor that wants to customize risk and reward, as well as the time frame in which to invite exposure..

An option contract expiring January 18, 2014, also with a $37 strike price affords a premium of $1120, in addition to possible gains on shares if assigned. To put that into perspective, the premium yield of 3.0% for a 5 week period would be sufficient to re-purchase 30.5 shares of Microsoft. As with the weekly contract, if not assigned the opportunity to do the same is explored in an effort to generate even more income.

For those that can’t be bothered by even monthly contracts or that may want to emphasize share gains over income, consider the sale of a longer term contract, or LEAP, such as one expiring in January 2015. Not only will your $40 strike option contract sales generate an immediate receipt of $2150 in option premiums, but as the holder of shares, unless Microsoft rallies well past $40 prior to expiration you will also receive deferred income in the form of $1120 in dividends. In this instance if shares are assigned the ROI is 19.8%. If not assigned, the total income yield would be 8.9%., regardless of disposition of shares.

I know that “PRIP” doesn’t really sound appealing when said aloud, but investors can get over the unfortunate acronym once the fun starts and the Einstein inside begins to show.

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eBay's Mediocrity is the Gift that Keeps Giving

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

December 26th will be the one year anniversay of my having purchased shares of eBay (EBAY).

During that time not much positive has been said about the company and just a few short weeks ago Ladenburg issued a downgrade, stating “until eBay can reclaim the $54 level, we believe eBay will be range-bound.”

Shares then dutifully traded down to the lower end of that range and have since been nestled near the mid-point.

The words “range-bound” are absolutely music to my ears, despite the fact that they may scream of mediocrity and lost opportunity to many others. It is as good of an example of the aphorism “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” as I can imagine.

While this has been one of my slowest trading weeks in a long time and everyone, including myself was eagerly awaiting the release of the FOMC minutes and Chairman Bernanke’s likely last press conference, I bought shares of eBay. Having done so marked the 15th occasion in the nearly one year period, with those shares always serving to create an opportunity to sell call options, usually utilizing short term and near the money strike levels

During that time eBay has indeed traded in a range. That $10 range from the yearly high to yearly low would have represented a 21% return for that very special investor who was able to purchase shares at the low and then exercise perfect timing by selling shares at their high. Even then that would have under-performed the S&P 500 for the year.

But for anyone practicing a buy and hold approach to stocks and entering a position at the time as did I, 2013 has been a lost year, with shares almost unchanged in that time. I’m certainly not that perfect investor who is able to time tops and bottoms. Instead, eBay is an example of why the imperfect trash is worth re-evaluating on a recurring basis. It is also an example of why there may be no particular advantage to over-thinking the many issues that everyone else has already considered.

EBAY ChartI don’t think very much about eBay’s ability to compete with Amazon (AMZN) or about challenges that may be faced by its profitable PayPal division. It’s not very likely that I would have any great or undiscovered insights. What I care about is illustrated in its chart that demonstrates the horizontal performance for much of 2013 that Ladenburg highlighted. (EBAY data by YCharts)
 

The average cost of the 15 lots of shares was $51.41, while the average strike price utilized was $51.43. Since eBay doesn’t offer a dividend, the net results for the past year have been almost exclusively derived from call option premiums and have delivered a nearly 34% return, subject to today’s sole open lot being assigned.

While eBay has given up much of the glory of its past as a market leader, there’s still glory to be had by making it a workhorse part of a portfolio that utilizes a covered option strategy.

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eBay’s Mediocrity is the Gift that Keeps Giving

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

December 26th will be the one year anniversay of my having purchased shares of eBay (EBAY).

During that time not much positive has been said about the company and just a few short weeks ago Ladenburg issued a downgrade, stating “until eBay can reclaim the $54 level, we believe eBay will be range-bound.”

Shares then dutifully traded down to the lower end of that range and have since been nestled near the mid-point.

The words “range-bound” are absolutely music to my ears, despite the fact that they may scream of mediocrity and lost opportunity to many others. It is as good of an example of the aphorism “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” as I can imagine.

While this has been one of my slowest trading weeks in a long time and everyone, including myself was eagerly awaiting the release of the FOMC minutes and Chairman Bernanke’s likely last press conference, I bought shares of eBay. Having done so marked the 15th occasion in the nearly one year period, with those shares always serving to create an opportunity to sell call options, usually utilizing short term and near the money strike levels

During that time eBay has indeed traded in a range. That $10 range from the yearly high to yearly low would have represented a 21% return for that very special investor who was able to purchase shares at the low and then exercise perfect timing by selling shares at their high. Even then that would have under-performed the S&P 500 for the year.

But for anyone practicing a buy and hold approach to stocks and entering a position at the time as did I, 2013 has been a lost year, with shares almost unchanged in that time. I’m certainly not that perfect investor who is able to time tops and bottoms. Instead, eBay is an example of why the imperfect trash is worth re-evaluating on a recurring basis. It is also an example of why there may be no particular advantage to over-thinking the many issues that everyone else has already considered.

EBAY ChartI don’t think very much about eBay’s ability to compete with Amazon (AMZN) or about challenges that may be faced by its profitable PayPal division. It’s not very likely that I would have any great or undiscovered insights. What I care about is illustrated in its chart that demonstrates the horizontal performance for much of 2013 that Ladenburg highlighted. (EBAY data by YCharts)
 

The average cost of the 15 lots of shares was $51.41, while the average strike price utilized was $51.43. Since eBay doesn’t offer a dividend, the net results for the past year have been almost exclusively derived from call option premiums and have delivered a nearly 34% return, subject to today’s sole open lot being assigned.

While eBay has given up much of the glory of its past as a market leader, there’s still glory to be had by making it a workhorse part of a portfolio that utilizes a covered option strategy.

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