When to Take Tax Losses

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

Each year the ritual begins just days before New Years. Even in the best of years there are bound to be some losers. Fortunately, whatever faults there may be in the tax code, the ability to attenuate investment mistakes isn’t one of them.

Since I actively sell covered options and generate taxable premiums the thought of offsetting gains is appealing, but before jumping at the opportunity a grasp of history may be helpful.
In this case looking at the strategic tax losses taken in 2012 I’m struck by one thing. Four out of the five such sales saw shares appreciate more than the S&P 500’s gain for 2013. Not only did they gain more than 29% from their sales price, but they also gained more than 29 % from their purchase prices.
Proponents of the “Dogs of the Dow Theory” would readily understand the phenomenon, as perhaps should serial covered option writers who repeatedly write options on the same stocks as their prices regularly go up and down, sometimes even to extremes, yet so often recover.
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, there is a preponderance of thought that losses should be taken if they reach the 10% level. For those believing in rules, this is a useful rule, if consistently practiced.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that proceeds from the sale of losers will be recycled into the shares of winners. Sometimes losers simply give way to other losers, as even well devised ideas don’t alwaysbear fruit. While hindsight often has me wishing I had cut my losses, the real battle is deciding whether to follow your humble or arrogant side.

The arrogant side believes it can re-invest loser proceeds and recover losses. The humble side wonders how someone so ill-advised and having made the original investment, then sat frozenly while shares plunged, could now suddenly be deft enough to select a winner, instead of inviting ruination once again.
It’s difficult to not take the humble side’s argument. Logic trumps hope.
The decision process as to whether to take tax losses begins with understanding your tax liability, which is related to your marginal tax rate. If in the highest Federal tax bracket, the short term rate on capital gains is 39.6%, although the rate varies from 10 to 39.6%.

Next comes a look at the probabilities of various outcomes and their respective benefits.
There is a 100% probability that the loss will decrease your tax liability, if you didn’t violate the Wash Sales Rules. It’s hard to beat those odds, but if you do buy and sell the same stock repeatedly, as I often do, the 30 day window on either side of your proposed trade can scuttle your strategy.
The next step takes some calculation.

As an example, I’m going to look at Petrobras (PBR) shares that I bought on January 7, 2013 at $20.05 and currently trading at $13.48. An advanced degree is mathematics is unnecessary to recognize that represents more than a 10% decline and would violate investing rules sometimes attributed to famed financier Bernard Baruch.
The potential tax benefit is based upon your tax rate and whether the holding is a short term or long term. As a short term holding the Petrobras position is entitled up to a 39.6% credit against capital gains, meaning that credit can be worth up to $2.60 per share.

While that is an objective calculation, the next step is entirely subjective and focuses on your assessment of the probability that Petrobras shares will add $2.60 to its current share price. How likely is it that shares will gain 19.3%?  While there may be be company specific challenges, as well as broader economic challenges to consider, one may be justified in wondering whether Petrobras will be this year’s Hewlett Packard (HPQ), which was a strategic tax loss that I mistakenly took last year and is up 99% YTD.

If you believe that such lightning may strike twice in a lifetime you may decide to roll the dice and surrender the certainty of a short term tax credit.

if your educated gamble is right, even at the new higher price yomay still qualify for a tax loss, however, you’ll find yourself looking at a much ower credit, if the short term loss becomes a long term loss. As a movie character once asked, “are you feeling lucky?” If you can generate some option premiums along the way you can make your own luck, but whatever the outcome, it is deferred to 2015, which may entail further opportunity costs.

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

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

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Copyright 2013 TheAcsMan

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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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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Caterpillar is My Annuity

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

Years ago I treated a teenager in the emergency room after an assault, re-implanting a tooth that had been knocked out during an assault.

His mother was so appreciative that before they left she had taken the time amd effort to sell me an annuity. Young and gullible and with discretionary cash, I signed on thinking “what a great idea.” I canceled that annuity within the three day window once I learned what an annuity actually was and soon after made my first stock investment.

When my son did an internship at a leading insurance company I refused to give him the names of any of my professional contacts, once he started telling me how great annuities would be for them. That valuable information on my enemies, however, were readily turned over I didn’t even give him my contact information.

To this day, I really dislike the idea of annuities, except if they’re unintentional and of my own making. I

‘m reasonably certain that no one on Caterpillar’s (CAT) Board of Directors thinks of it as a company in the business of providing annuities, but I do. I’m certain that their heavy equipment is excellent, but their artificial financial engineering products are even better.

My memory may be failing, but I can’t think of a company in the past year that has been disparaged more than has Caterpillar. It’s CEO, Douglas Oberhelm, has been generally pilloried and is frequently suggested as a leading candidate for “Worst CEO of 2013,” as Herb Greenberg collects nominations for that annual honor.

At this year’s Delivering Alpha Conference, famed short seller Jim Chanos presented a compelling argument for the reasons that Caterpillar was his choice as “short of the year.” While being in the running for worst CEO of the year is humbling enough, having your company in the crosshairs of someone willing to put their substantial assets to work in support of the thesis should be cause for further introspection. While perhaps true, it’s not entirely clear that Caterpillar has been engaged in any activities that are designed to help propel its shares higher, other than overpaying for shares as part of its share repurchase program.

It’s certainly not easy keeping a low profile when you’re a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Index as it spent much of the year hitting new record highs and your share price languished in a trading range. However, perhaps “Type A” personalities require a stock that is firing on all cylinders, but I prefer one that has settled into mediocrity and knows how to tread in place. Welcome to Caterpillar.

CAT ChartLet’s look at the simple 2013 YTD statistics. While the DJIA has advanced 20.2%, Caterpillar has fallen 4.0%, but only down 2.1% if you plow dividends back into the equation. Unfortunately for those 2013 Caterpillar statistics the company advanced a dividend payment from 2013 to 2012 in order to take advantage of a lower tax environment. (CAT data by YCharts)
 

While no one really cares about the sum of the absolute value of share price moves Caterpillar would be worshipped if they did. I have to admit having spent some time at the altar of Caterpillar, especially for most of 2013 as it rarely ventured far from home.

While the lack of performance is shameful, perhaps the real shame comes from exercising a buy and hold approach with a stock that has been so well suited for a covered call strategy, as it has traded in a range and has been repeatedly cited and chided for doing so.

Whenever you hear a stock criticized for being unable to break out of its trading range it’s time to think of creating your own annuity, rather than looking for an alternative investment.

Here’s why.

That range has created the opportunity to create your own annuity by serially purchasing shares when within that range and selling near the money or in the money calls. After all, why use out of the money calls in an attempt to optimize share gain when the real gain is from premiums? Collecting premiums and collecting dividends with occasional, albeit small gains or losses on shares over and over again has been an annuity in disguise. The income not only flows on a regular basis, but its accumulation can be significant and even make a celebrated short seller salivate.

In an 18 month period I have owned shares on 15 different occasions, sometimes holding different priced lots concurrently. In that time the average purchase price per share was $84.74, as compared to today’s $86.05 close. Adding dividends the 18 month return would be 5.2% for the buy and hold investor as compared to 52.7% for the aggressive covered option investor. During that same period of time the Dow Jones climbed 22.3%

Ultimately, every single argument being made against Caterpillar may be warranted and Oberhelm may, in fact, be deserving of an unwanted appellation. However, Caterpillar’s pricing behavior provides a good argument for remaining agnostic regarding the issues that others find so compelling.

Who knows, maybe even annuities can someday get beyond their “Worst Investment of 2013” status.

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Fastenal is Fascinating

(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

Actually, that may be a little bit of an over-statement. Fastenal (FAST) is fairly staid, at least on a conceptual level.

In a previous life, one that included legitimate employment, I flew into a New England city on a weekly basis and would pass a Fastenal store on a lonely back road with equal frequency. On the occasional daytime landings I noticed that the parking lot and sidewalks would sometimes be packed, sometimes empty and never thought twice about it, otherwise.

During an economic period when businesses opened with great expectations and closed with great disappointment, that solitary Fastenal store was there for at least the 7 years that I drove past it. Nothing terribly fancy nor ostentatious about its appearance, just a utilitarian building, presumably delivering the literal and figurative goods.

Back then I had no idea what exactly Fastenal did, nor whether it was a publicly traded company. My assumption was that it had something to do with fasteners. “Fasten All. we fasten everything,” I envisioned their ad campaign for people in need of fasteners not knowing where else to go. I’m just smart that way.

Its location certainly couldn’t be associated with high profile consumer items and the word “technology” wasn’t anywhere to be found on the building’s edifice. But at least in the recent aftermath of the dot com bust it still had a building with its name on it. Little did I know that there were many of those buildings in the kind of places or beaten paths that I didn’t frequent very often and that they had lots more than hardware and fasteners.

Years later, when I had devoted myself to full time portfolio management I happened to pass another Fastenal site, this one in rural Delaware. On that particular day the lot was packed. A year later the same lot was empty and a few months later packed again. I may be smart in certain ways, but sometimes a sense of curiosity is helpful, as well. I don’t have much of the latter, but the laws governing osmosis are difficult to avoid.

At some point following all of those sightings I had a reasonable idea of what Fastenal was about and aware that it was about lots more than fasteners. Yet, even with a little bit of knowledge in hand I had never taken the leap and invested in shares. It’s just not one of those companies that you hear discussed very much, but it casts a fairly wide footprint among those people that actually do something tangible with their skill sets, like building and improving things that we may often take for granted.

In a world that takes great pride in and expects pant waists to ride at or above the actual waist, Fastenal was treading in a world where slippage may have been more the norm.

At some point casual observations can lead to intrigue. Certainly the idea of channel checking has some merit, but the occasional glimpse of a single store is probably not the sort of thing that channel checkers would trumpet as validating their work. Additionally, as hard as I might try to find an association or correlation to suggest that Fastenal could serve as a proxy to herald changes in GDP or broad market averages, the thesis was just lacking.

Looking at every potential investment from the perspective of a covered option writer and having started following Fastenal shares, as is my custom when my interest is piqued, for 6 months or more, I finally decided to purchase shares in June 2013 and am currently on my fifth lot of shares in that time.

The average purchase price for those 5 lots was $47.27 with the average strike price of the lots being $47.80. Based on today’s closing price of $46.41, the average price of all shares, including those of previously assigned positions is $47.45. If somehow I could magically close the book on the positions today the cumulative return would be 23.6% when shares themselves are actually trading at a loss compared to the average cost. During that same time frame the S&P 500 has advanced approximately 8.5%.

FAST ChartWhy am I telling you any of this? Sure, boasting is one reason, but despite the lack of a coherent thesis to urge the use of Fastenal as a predictive tool, what now captures my attention with regard to future opportunities is a quick look at Fastenal’s chart over the past 5 weeks.

 
The banality of variation during that time is exactly what excites a covered option strategist. While a consistent flat line wouldn’t do very much to encourage option buyers to ante up the premiums, the occasional paroxysms of price, up or down, make selling Fastenal call options an appealing complement to an overall strategy of trying to optimize share returns and dividends. More importantly, the setting of a strike price at which options are sold establishes a discipline by creating an exit point and doing what is often left undone – taking profits. While Fastenal may be staid, most of us would consider the idea of profits to be fascinating regardless of how often we would have to be subject to them.

 

FAST data by YCharts

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Cisco was a Friend of Mine

You have to be of a certain age to recognize the Cisco Kid character, but somewhat younger to be familiar with the song that paid homage to the fictional character.

After terrible earnings and poorly received guidance that stunned most everyone, Cisco (CSCO) hasn’t made many friends, but it’s still a friend of mine.

Maybe the problem is all in the name. No, not Cisco, there are worse things in the world than being confused for a food services company. Maybe the problem is in the name John Chambers.

Barely two years ago it was a John Chambers, as head of Standard and Poors’ Sovereign Debt Committee who lowered the debt rating of US Treasury debt. He wasn’t very popular at the time, as many people are put off when they can connect the dots and point fingers at the catalyst for a market wide plunge.

But the John Chambers who is the CEO of Cisco has seen his popularity mirror that of many stocks, in general, as it has gone up and down and up again.

Now it’s down.

Not too long ago John Chambers was said to be on the short list to be the Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration. He was regarded as a model CEO of the new economy and his slow drawl and transparency were welcome alternatives to the obfuscation spun by so many others. His candor during interviews in the immediate moments of earnings being released were always respected.

Then the bottom fell out from Cisco and there were calls for his ouster. Seeing share price in 2011 challenge the lows of 2009 wasn’t the sort of thing that engendered confidence and the calls went out for his head. At that point Treasury Secretary may have been looking pretty good, but that ship had long sailed.

But Chambers was eventually rehabilitated. Rising stock prices, perhaps buoyed by aggressive buybacks, will do that for you. In fact, if you conveniently have data points extend only from the lows in August 2011 to yesterday, Cisco actually out-performed the broader index.

Ironically, John Chambers is somewhat like fictional The Cisco Kid, who actually started his life as a cruel outlaw, but became regarded as being a heroic character. It’s just that Chambers can stay a hero.

Chambers has been there and done that, but now he’s back in that dark place, where people are even poking fun at his drawl and once again saying that his ship has sailed. Perhaps plunges on two successive earnings releases will create that kind of feeling. He certainly may have cut back a bit on his candor, as even his appearance yesterday offered little insight into the disappointment that awaited.

In fact, many asked, given how substantive the alterations in forward guidance were, why Cisco didn’t pre-announce or issue revised guidance weeks ago.

Personally, I don’t see the difference between getting hit with an earnings related surprise earlier, rather than when scheduled. I actually prefer knowing the date and time that i may see my shares subject to evisceration.

I owned Cisco shares and have done so on 5 different occasions this year. My shares had calls written upon them and were due to expire November 22, 2013. Barely a few hours ago they seemed certain to be assigned. Now they are more likely to be seeking rollover opportunity to a future date.

As most everyone has piled on the sell wagon, much as had occurred with Oracle (ORCL), which also had two successive share plunges after disappointing earnings, I believe that for the short term trader and particularly for the covered option trader, this most recent fall in share price is just an entry opportunity.

Yesterday, I did something that I very rarely do. I purchased shares in the after hours. Usually when I do so, in the anticipation that by morning calmer heads will prevail, I’m typically wrong. That was the case with Cisco this morning.

In addition to buying shares in the after hours, another thing that I rarely do is to purchase shares without immediately or very shortly after selling calls on those shares. In essence, both actions were counter to my overall desire to limit risk.

While I’m usually on the wrong side of momentum when entering, I look at these positions as ones to generate both capital gains from shares and option premium income, whereas for the majority of my positions I emphasize premium and dividend income.

In the case with Oracle, opportunity existed after bad news and exaggerated downward price movements. SInce I tend to be short term oriented, I only care about the opportunity and not about structural issues that may have longer term impact.

While earnings represented a risk and shares moved quite a bit more than the implied movement, suggesting that investors were surprised and unprepared, I think the risk is now greatly discounted.

I make no judgment regarding the ability of Cisco, whether under Chambers’ leadership or anyone else to compete in the marketplace and to recapture its glory or restore Chambers to a position of honor.

Instead, Cisco is nothing more than a vehicle. The Cisco Kid had his horse, John Chambers had his buybacks and for some the shares of this beleaguered company are the vehicle of the day.

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A Put Primer

There was a lot of stress this week over the sale of puts on Abercrombie and Fitch.

Most of the stress was by me. Not because of the ridiculous price action, which is standard fare for these shares, but because I had to figure out how best to track the outcome of the trade when some people. including me had early assignment of the puts, while others did not and were heading toward assignment at the end of the day.

That also means different trading strategies because some would potentially have shares in hand upon which to sell calls today, while others would be faced with the decision to either roll over the puts or await assignment and hope to be able to sell calls on Monday.

The problem with that latter is that it’s hard to predicate anything on a hope, especially since today was an ideal day to rollover the puts as ANF had a large share gain intra-day. Who knows what Monday brings?

My guess, but that’s all it can ever be is that if the market is sound next week ANF will make up some more ground in advance of its earnings report on November 21, 2013.

Between the known fact that shares were stronger today and the unknowns awaiting next week, compounded by what ridiculous more news may come at earnings makes the gift horse especially appealing.

Later I’ll show you why improving price was important using some screenshots I took during the day while following shares looking for opportiunities.

But since this is a primer, let’s start at the beginning.

To start, a put is an option contract that when bought is a statement that the buyer expects the shares to go down in value, in which case the value of his option will increase.

The buyer typically wants to trade in and out of option positions, because their money is greatly leveraged. They don’t usually want to be assigned and have to take over ownership of shares.

The put seller is usually the more bullish participant in the trade. They think that the shares may go up or down, but if they go down they’re not likely to go below the strike price. The big caveat is that put sellers should be willing to own the shares just in case they are assigned and they end up owning them, as happened to me and a small number of other subscribers.

In the case of Abercrombie and Fitch its shares plummeted on the day before their planned Analysts’s Meeting, the first they had held in over two years.

On the evening before that meeting they presented revised guidance and it wasn’t very good news. I hate revised guidance, even when it’s good. There’s no way to prepare for it unless you have inside information.

I almost purchased shares in the after-hours, but decided to wait until the next day.

At first, when trading started I was upset for having waited as the price significantly improved but was still low enough to seem to warrant a position. However, just to hedge, I decided to use an out of the money put in anticipation of some continued price drop.

As an aside, but an appropriate one, I think the current market may be an appropriate one for the use of more put sales rather than initiating new positions and covered calls. That’s simply an expression of a bearish sentiment. Even though I’ve been cautious and have kept cash reserves, I’ve not used the SOS strategy as a further expression of bearishness, but I think there may be a greater role for put sales now.

Obviously, understanding them is requisite for their use.

But, back to Abercrombie and Fitch. Thanks to the utterings of the CEO, who is not terribly regarded as a person, due to his rather odd behavior and opinions,  shares suddenly went much lower during mid-day trading and then everyone on television just piled on. If you ever have any doubt about the power of basic cable television, just watch the ticker and price changes as specific stocks are discussed, especially when event driven. But even then, the continued drop surprised me, thinking that an additional 2% drop was enough of a cushion after an already 5% drop in shares.

So shares dropped even more. Normally, the escape strategy when having sold puts that are now in the money is to simply roll them over at the same strike price, assuming you continue to be reasonably bullish. Otherwise, you can roll down to a lower strike price, but that will cut into your net premium, perhaps even causing a “net debit” from the transaction.

However, Abercrombie and Fitch made any kind of transaction difficult because the more it was in the money the less became the time value of the contracts, being instead made up almost entirely of intrinsic value, that is the difference between the strike and the current value. To make it worse, there was a large gap between the bid and ask prices.

The net result was that at one point earlier in the day a rollover trade would have resulted in incurring a Net Debit.

You don’t want a net debit. You would prefer to make money, even if it’s not that much money.

In this scenario you would have still been obligated to buy shares for $35.50 a week later, but it would have cost you $0.20 of your earlier option premium profit.

As long time subscribers know, I have patience.

In this case the patience was measured in hours and not option cycles.

 

 



 

In the meantime, though the price of shares started recovering in the late morning, the Net Debit went only to break-even.

The differential between the expiring contract and that of the next week  saw naturally more erosion in the expiring contract as price moved in a direction toward the strike price. Obviously, that’s not something in your control. It’s just a measured risk, knowing that even if nothing is done you’ll end up with shares in your account on Monday morning and then just do with them as is done with every other holding.

But simply being at break-even is fine if the brokerage is your uncle. Otherwise, it’s not very satisfying.

 



Then it went to a Net Credit.

Bingo.

That’s what you want. In fact, you can see from the timestamp on this image and the previous one, that even though the price of shares was more favorable earlier, the premium differential actually improved as the clock was ticking, even though shares moved away from the strike.

 

 

 

  

The problem was that the bid-ask spread was still on the large side, leaving only a small net profit

Here’s where it’s helpful to look at the call side of things.

Even though pricing isn’t always rational, it’s reasonable to expect that whatever irrationality there is would be equally distributed between call buyers and put buyers.

Hard to prove, but equally hard to argue.

On the call side of things the equivalent trade, that is selling the November 16, 2013 $35.50 call was yielding a bid of $0.18 with a more normal differential between bid and ask.

So in placing a trade to rollover the puts, rather than using the bid on the sale and the ask on the purchase (as outlined here), for a Net Credit of $0.08, use an intermediate figure determined on the call side of the aisle.

For those that haven’t owned Abercrombie and Fitch in the past, it is a stock that can be very rewarding with a modicum of patience and has been ideally suited for a covered option strategy, but all in all I would much rather see put sales expire and simply decide whether I want to pursue the stock on my own terms the following week, as was recently done with Coach, another company that takes big price hits, but always seems to work its way back into good graces.

In general, if your put sale shares are just slightly in the money you are usually much better off simply rolling over the puts just as you would normally rollover a call position sold on shares that you own.

Unfortunately, I don’t have it documented with screenshots, but for my personal trades some of you may have noticed that I’ve been doing that with the ProShares Ultra Silver ETN (AGQ) speculative hedging position. In this case using a $20 strike price I haven’t really cared too much whether the price was above or below the strike. I just allowed events to dictate whether rolling over when expecting a price increase in silver or sitting on the sidelines when expecting price increases. As with stocks, it’s all about being able to do the trades on a serial basis and watching the premiums add up.

When history repeats itself it can be a beautiful thing.

If this is your first foray with Abercrombie and Fitch I believe that this is a good price at which to do it over and over again, whether through the sale of puts of through the use of covered calls.

I’ll leave the personal feelings about the CEO to others, as long as there is a way to milk some dividends from this pig.

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Copyright 2013 TheAcsMan

Implied Price Moves

On rare occasion I actually get some indication that someone is reading these articles.

In this case I was recently asked a question about “implied moves,” citing the fact that I refer to that concept with some frequency in articles. For me, that implied someone actually having read at least one article. The use of the word “frequency” further implied that I did so either on multiple occasions in a single article or perhaps in many articles.

That which is implied isn’t necessarily precise.

There are lots and lots of different metrics and measures that are used in assessing stock charts and stock fundamentals. I have long maintained doubts about the validity of many of those measures, at  least the ones most frequently cited and presented. It always appears that for every expert’s interpretation of data there is another equally esteemed expert who takes an opposing position.

For someone who had spent about 20 years in academic environments and who respects the “scientific method,” I prefer common sense approaches to investing.

You can be certain that for the widely used tools and measures everyone under the sun has already applied the tools and the chances of an eye popping discovery that flies below the radar is not likely. So why bother?

The same may or may not be true of more closely held metrics or proprietary tools. Presumably the PhDs in statistics, physics and applied mathematics are being paid princely sums for their algorithms because they produce results at the margins.

If you followed the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics you may have thought it to be ironic that the prize was shared by Eugene Fama and Robert Schiller. The ironic part is that one was recognized for his work supporting rational markets, while the other was awarded on the basis of endorsing irrational markets.

So clearly black and white can be the same.

While I only passingly glance at charts and various measures and completely ignore the traditional measures used to characterize options, better known as “The Greeks,” I do consider the option market equivalent of crowd sourcing, better known as a measure of a stock’s  “implied price move.”

While I believe that the option market usually gets it wrong, which is a good thing, because those are the people that are buying the goods that you’re selling, the crowd does provide some guidance. As in real life, it’s often good to stay away from the crowd, despite the fact that crowds can create a sense of comfort or security.

Or frenzy.

In this case the guidance provided by option market participants is an estimation of how much the option market believes a stock’s price will move during the period in question by looking at both the bull and the bear perspective as based on the most fundamental of all criterion.

What is considered is the price that someone is willing to pay to either buy a call option or a put option at a specific strike price.

I only use “implied movement” when a known event is coming, such as earnings being released. I want to get an idea of just how much the option market believes that the stock is likely to move based on the event that is going to occur.

In articles I refer to the phenomenon of “Premiums Enhanced by Earnings” or “PEE.” During such times the uncertain way in which stocks may respond to earnings news drives option premiums higher. It’s all a case of risk and reward.

But because earnings introduces additional risk I look for a measure that may suggest to me that I have an advantage over the crowd.

The calculation of the “implied move” is very simple, but is most accurate for a weekly contract, because that minimizes the impact of time on option premium.

To begin, you just need to identify the strike price that is most close to the current share price and then find the respective call and put bid premiums. By adding those together and dividing by the strike price you arrive at the “implied move.” which tells you that the option market is anticipating a move in either direction of that magnitude.

IMPLIED PRICE MOVE = (Call bid + put bid)/Strike price,  where Strike price is that closest to current share price

The implied move is expressed as a percentage.

Using Facebook as an example, the graphic below was from the day prior to the announcement of earnings and with approximately 3 1/2 days left to expiration.

Facebook was trading at $49.53 and the $49.50 November 1, 2013 call option bid was $3.10, while the corresponding put option bid was $3.05



At a point that shares were trading at $49.53 and using the $49.50 strike level, the combined call and put premium of $6.20 would result in an implied move of approximately 12.5%. That would mean that the stock market was anticipating an earnings related trading range from approximately $43 to $56.

Great, but how do we capitalize on that bit of information, which may or may not have validity, especially since it is based on prices that in part are determined by option buyers, who frequently get it wrong?

I use my personal objective, which is a 1% ROI for each new trade.

In the case of Facebook, whether buying shares accompanied by the sale of calls or simply selling puts, the ROI is based upon the premiums received, plus or minus capital gains or losses from the underlying shares and of course, trading costs.

In general, there is a slight advantage in earnings related trades to the sale of puts rather than using a covered call strategy. Doing so also tends to reduce transaction costs.

In the case of Facebook, the first strike price that would yield a 1% ROI is at $42, because the bid premium at that strike is $0.44 and the amount of cash put at risk is $42.

The key question then is whether that 1% ROI could be achieved by a position that is outside of the implied range. The further outside that range the more appealing the trade becomes.

Again, in this case, with shares trading at $49.53, it would require a 15.2% decline in price to trigger the possibility of assignment. That is outside the range that the crowd believes will be the case.

In this case, I’m currently undecided as to whether to make this trade because of other factors.

There are almost always other factors.

First, the positive factor is that I prefer to sell puts on shares that have already started showing weakness in advance of earnings. That increases the put premiums available and perhaps gets some of that weakness out of its system, as the more squeamish share holders are heading for the exits in a more orderly fashion, rather than doing it as part of a rushing crowd.

The negative factor is that tomorrow is another event that may impact the overall market. That is the release of the FOMC minutes. Although I don’t expect much of a reaction in the event of a surprise or nuanced language the market could drag Facebook along with it, possibly compounding any earnings related downdraft.

So in this case I’m likely to wait until after 2 PM tomorrow to make a decision.

By that time the likelihood of any FOMC related influence will be known, but there will also need to be a recalculation of implied move as premiums will change both related to any changes in share price, as well as to decreased option value related to the loss of an additional day of premium.

In general, everything else being equal, waiting to make such a trade reduces the ROI or increases the risk associated with the trade.

Aren’t you glad you don’t read these articles?

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