The Dark Side of Crowd Sourcing

(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

Crowds can certainly be a means for achieving good ends. Ask people in Tahrir Square or those in Kiev, although some may disagree and see only the dark side of crowds.

The power of crowds has made Wikipedia an increasingly legitimate asset as the crowd has been tamed and made to adhere to standards. The burden of creating a useful utility is borne by so many people that no one individual is critical and no one individual can harm the foundation.

In the world of financing “crowd sourcing,” the mechanism of pooling funds from a large group of people to help achieve an objective is getting increasingly popular for charitable and commercial ventures and received great fanfare this week as legendary musician Neil Young sought funding for his project of creating a high fidelity system to play and listen to digital music that restores all of the sounds and nuances of the original recordings as intended by the artists.

Neil Young has been adamant over the years about his feelings regarding the quality of the most prevalent file format used for digital recordings and many believe that the iTunes franchise of Apple (AAPL) is most at risk for an assault against that format and to introduction of a new audio player. Perhaps the sentiment attributed to Young that the songs on an iPhone “sound like crap,” and that even Steve Jobs wasn’t satisfied with the sound of music on the iPod, add to that feeling of an impending assault on the existing Apple eco-system..

As an artist proud of his art, and together with a growing collection of other well known artists who feel similarly about the preservation of the quality of their art, there is certainly a case to be made for providing a medium that faithfully recreates the experience. Of course, doing so requires capital and investment and is faced with long odds when the competitor is Apple.

While there are different models of crowd sourcing, the most commonly used and the one that Mr. Young is utilizing is that promoted by Kickstarter. It is one that offers rewards for contributions toward reaching a specified financial objective. Rewards are based upon the level of donation, which is referred to as a “pledge,” which is returned if at the end of the campaign the financial objective is not met.

As an example, a $5 pledge to this campaign entitles the donor to “LOVE + THANKS” and a mention on the website. Greater amounts may result in “swag,” including T-shirts, signed posters and even a discounted price on the music player. At the highest level, $5,000, donors receive a “VIP Dinner and Listening Party with Neil Young.”

No doubt that all of these reward have some value, but what they belie is greed.

First, Kickstarter offers a great opportunity for those without ready access to capital and a wonderful means to generate financial support for what may be great projects, products and ideas that would otherwise never see the light of day. Crowd sourcing may be the mechanism by which yet another great American success story is launched without the potential burden of over-bearing and demanding investors worried about their capital investments.

The alternative, the more traditional route is to access capital markets or venture capital and accept the potential liabilities that may come along with those alternatives. Whether that includes the re-payment of business loans or the granting of equity, the price is very tangible, although perhaps necessary and even an indispensable part of the equation.

The novice inventor has little chance to access either of these traditional routes of funding, having neither their own capital nor networks to get a foot in the door. That is where Kickstarter comes in and offers an opportunity to open the doors with very few strings attached other than a token gift of appreciation. That opportunity can make all of the difference for so many, but seems inherently wrong when the ones asking for pledges have infinite avenues available to them and are more likely to find the path to success to be a paved road.

And then there’s Neil Young.

While I’m not privy to his ability to personally finance this laudable project it may be reasonable to believe that through his own resources or through his personal network of contacts he would be able to find the resources necessary to bring this project fully into being. There is, however, scant information on the Kickstarter site as to the earlier backers of this effort.

In the event that there is a gap in funding for additional components of the strategy to bring the enhanced music player to market, there is clearly a downside to going back to original investors. That downside is the need to cede further equity to attract funds. However, the non-traditional route offered by Kickstarter entails none of that need to reduce personal equity. Instead yoou keep it all and pass the costs down to those who get no share in any potential future success.

In this case the objective of the campaign was to raise $800,000 which seems like a small amount, although there’s no indication of just how much has already been invested in the project. That $800,000 threshold was easily surpassed in just the second day of the campaign. In fact, it was more than doubled with more than a month remaining to collect even more.

Like the duo in “The Producers” the campaign can keep collecting as much as it wants because all that needs to be done is to print more T-shirts or sign more posters. As opposed to 100% of the pie the universe of T-shirts is conceivably unlimited and carries no future obligation to any of the donors.

Donors, many of whom, like me, probably already have a large collection of rock and roll T-shirts just love the idea of being associated in perpetuity with one of their favorite rock stars. In that case of the 8300 such items to be given away 5741 potential items still remain with an additional donation value in return of over $2.2 million. Of course, there are also those unlimited donor levels of $5 and $50, because “LOVE AND THANKS” is in eternal supply.

On the other hand, the cynic in me wonders how $800,000, in a project of this size could possibly have made any difference, particularly when access to real investors shouldn’t be a limiting factor. One has to wonder whether the campaign is simply part of an awareness and publicity campaign, as it has certainly already achieved quite a bit of attention in addition to money and helps to create a potential audience for the planned new hardware, made a bit more enticing with donor discounts.

No matter what your opinion this campaign will be an example of the power of crowd sourcing and will serve as a model for others eager to protect their own interests and perhaps drain from the pool of donations available to others less well connected to capital sources.

Too bad, but at least for the artist, if successful, it means hearing his work in the manner in which it was intended. For the donor who received a discount on the player it’s more likely a situation of wondering when he was going to hear the difference and how many washes that T-shirt can endure.

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Profiting From Good Fortune Or Bad

While most of the more meaningful companies in the S&P 500 have already reported earnings and new earnings season is barely 7 weeks away, there’s still time to profit from remaining earnings reports coming this week.

Whether a company’s shares respond to earnings by going lower or higher there is often opportunity to profit from either the good or the bad fortunes that they may endure as a result of their past performance and outlook for future fortunes.

As always, whenever I consider whether an earnings related trade is worth consideration I let the option market’s measure of “implied volatility” serve as a threshold in determining whether there is a satisfactory risk-reward proposition. That simple calculation provides an upper and lower price range in which any anticipated price movements will be contained.

Occasionally, for those selling options, whether as part of a covered call strategy or simply through the sale of puts, there may be an opportunity to achieve an acceptable premium even though it represents a share price that is outside of those bounds set by the option market.

This week there appear to be a number of stocks preparing to release their quarterly earnings that may warrant some attention as the reward may be well suited to the risk for some.

A number of the companies that I’ve highlighted are volatile in their own rights, but even more so when event driven, such as before earnings. While the implied volatilities may sometimes appear to be high, they are frequently borne out by past history and it would be injudicious to simply believe that such implied moves are outside the realm of probability.

While individuals can certainly set their own risk-reward parameters, I tend to look at a weekly 1% ROI as meeting my threshold on the reward side of the equation. I measure the degree of risk as whether I need to look above or below the implied volatility to achieve that desired return for what is anticipated to be a week’s investment.

Satisfactory risk exists when the strike price necessary to achieve the ROI is outside of the range predicted by the option market.

The coming week is replete with earnings reports and presents more companies than I usually find that satisfy the above criteria and are in companies that I usually already follow. Among the companies that I am considering this coming week are Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF), Best Buy (BBY), Deckers (DECK), JC Penney (JCP), Macys (M), (CRM), SolarCity (SCTY), Soda Stream (SODA) and T-Mobile (TMUS).

Since the basis of these trades is purely upon what may be considered an inefficiency between the option premiums and the implied volatility, I give no consideration to fundamental nor technical issues. However, my preference, when selling put contracts is to do so when shares have already been falling in price in advance of earnings. As the current week came to its end that included JC Penney, SolarCity, Deckers and Best Buy, although the coming week may define other possibilities.

For those not having sold put contracts in the past, one caveat when considering such trades, is that the investor must be prepared to own the shares if assigned or to manage the options contract, such as rolling it forward, if assignment appears inevitable.

 The table may be used as a guide for determining which of these selected companies meet the risk-reward parameters that an individual sets, understanding that re-assessments need to be made as prices and, therefore, strike prices and their premiums may change.

While the list can be used on a prospective basis in anticipation of an earnings related move there may also be occasion to consider the sale of puts following earnings in those cases where shares have reacted in a decidedly negative fashion to earnings or to guidance.

While some believe in hitting someone when they’re already down, there can be much more satisfaction gained in giving them support in their effort to rise again. Inherently the sale of a put is a statement of bullish sentiment and there may be opportunity to make that expression a profitable one as the response of many when knocked down is to get back up again.

Whether prospective or reactive, there is always opportunity when big movements are anticipated, but not fully realized.

And if they are realized? Think of it as simply more opportunity for opportunity.

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Earnings Finally Matter

A couple of years ago I finally realized that I like earnings season.

Part of that realization was out of necessity as it seems that earnings season never ends, so it just can’t be avoided. Of the companies that I regularly follow, no sooner does LuLuLemon Athletica (LULU) report its earnings that Alcoa (AA)traditionally kicks off the next season just two weeks later.

The way I now look at things earnings season accounts for about 85% of the year, so it has become a case of just learning to live with it instead of fearing the potential for swings. The problem with a buy and hold approach is that the investor is often held hostage to the wild price swings that accompany earnings and can see paper profits quickly erased as the mountain has to be newly re-climbed.

One of the nice things about using a covered option strategy is that you can, to a degree, determine what your exposure to earnings risk or reward is through the use of varied expiration dates. For existing holdings that you believe may have difficulty withstanding an earnings report the use of a longer option contract can give you more downside protection due to the larger premium, as well as additional time for shares to recover, if indeed they fail to hold the line.

You can also use shorter term options in the hope of being assigned out of a position in advance of earnings.

Of course, there is the more adventurous route, akin to being a storm chaser. You can meet earnings head on and purposefully trade in a stock just for the earnings related move.

While there are many ways to do so, I prefer the sale of out of the money put options and use the “implied volatility” as my guide, along with my objective of a 1% ROI on an investment that is hoped to last only for the week. Where possible I try to find a strike price that is outside the range suggested by the implied volatility, yet still offers a 1% or greater ROI.

Generally, only stocks that ordinarily trade with a high degree of volatility will be candidates for such an earnings related trade and have exhibited very large earnings related moves in the past.

This coming week is going to be a busy one as far as high profile companies go that may fit the above criteria. Among the companies that I am considering this coming week are Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), Blackstone (BX), Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), Facebook (FB), Las Vegas Sands (LVS), MasterCard (MA), Phillips 66 (PSX), Seagate Technology (STX), VMware (VMW) and Yahoo! (YHOO).

One thing that really appeals to me about earnings season is that it’s a time that I don’t really think about macroeconomic nor microeconomic issues. I simply focus on the numbers and the past history of price movements in that particular stock, especially in the aftermath of previous earnings reports.

The ultimate question is distilled to a very simple core. Is there an indication that the potential reward is sufficient for the potential risk?

As a general rule my preference is to sell puts when there is already an indication of price weakness. I look at any decline in share price in advance of earnings to be similar to a down payment and the sentiment that evolves as shares are already moving lower is often to increase the premium that can be obtained for the sale of puts and may also allow the use of even lower strike prices while getting a relatively larger option premium. Following this past Friday’s (January 24, 2014) 300 point loss in the DJIA, that isn’t terribly difficult.

The caveat is that you must be either willing to own the shares if assigned or be willing to manage the options contract until some resolution is achieved. That could mean rolling the option contract forward and hopefully to a lower strike or accepting assignment and then selling calls until assignment of shares.

The table above may be used as a guide for determining which of selected companies may meet the risk-reward parameters that an individual sets.

However, there are also times when, despite what appear to be acceptable rewards I don’t make the trade prior to earnings, but rather look for companies on the radar screen that find their shares on the losing end after announcement and guidance. That is especially true for those positions that don’t meet criteria or only do so marginally.

In such cases, I consider the sale of puts after the initial plunges, as often the premium is enhanced as sentiment assumes the importance that uncertainty previously held in maintaining the premium level.

Just a few days ago it appeared that the market was going to solely focus on earnings and fundamentals, just like in the old days. The coming week, in addition to perhaps being more responsive to earnings than in the past years, is suddenly also subject to many other winds, including more fallout from China, Turkish monetary woes, Argentinian debt and worries regarding the FOMC response to the current snapshot of the economy.

As a result, earnings related trades may also be impacted by those macroeconomic factors and I would be inclined to stay away from “marginal” selections and be increasingly inclined to consider trades after earnings, especially if prices have taken a strong downward move in response.


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Is Jeff Bezos Killing Capitalism?

(A version of this article appeared on TheStreet)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking Solace in an Earnings Challenged Coach

(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

It has been very easy to be disparaging of Coach (COH) these days.

In 2013, including dividends, an investment in Coach shares witnessed a 3.1% ROI, as compared to 29.6% for the S&P 500, exclusive of dividends.

Perhaps the root cause of the quantitative disappointment has been the near universal acknowledgement that Coach was no longer a very interesting place to shop, as Michael Kors (KORS) had displaced it in the hearts and more importantly, the literal and figurative pocketbooks of shoppers.

The first hint of trouble presented itself in August 2011 when shares plunged 6.5% after announcing earnings, following years of running higher, that took only a short rest in June 2010. While shares went bacl to their old ways of climbing higher under CEO and Chairman Lew Frankfort that climb came to a decided halt shortly after the Michael Kors IPO.

COH ChartIn 2013 Coach knew only large price moves following earnings reports, following the pattern that began in 2012. The difference, however, was that in 2013 all but one of those large price moves was higher, with -16.1%, +9.8%, -7.8% and -7.5% earnings related responses greeting increasingly wary and frustrated shareholders.

Coach reports its second quarter earnings on January 22, 2014 prior to the market’s open. The option market is implying a nearly 10% move upon that event, which comes on the heels of a 6.3% decline in shares in the past week.

For most, that may mean that this would be a good time to steer clear of Coach shares or even consider exiting existing psoitions, especially as the retail sector has been struggling to get consumers to part with their discretionary cash.

In the past year, while Coach has been a non-entity, I have owned it and sold calls on shares, or sold puts on eight occasions. Included in those trades were three sales of put options on the day prior to earnings and one purchase of shares and sale of calls on the day following disappointing earnings.

COH data by YCharts

During that time Coach has fulfilled two of my cardinal requirements in that it has been a model of mediocrity, but still has something to offer and will do more than simply make a pretense of maintaing a business model.

My goal with Coach, as with all positions upon which I use a covered option strategy is to make a small rate of return and in a short time frame. My ideal trade is one that returns a 1% profit in a week’s time and surpasses the performance of the S&P 500 during the time period of the trade.

During 2013, the cumulative return from the eight Coach trades was 25.4% and the average holding period was 28 days. The average trade had an ROI of 3.2%, which when adjusted for the average holding period was less than the 1% goal, consistent with the lower premiums obtained in a low volatiity period. However, during the same time periods for each trade, the results surpassed the S&P 500 performance for the same time periods by 18.5%.

Coach 2013 Performance - Option to Profit

While I don’t place too much credibility on annualizing performance, the annualized performace of Coach, utilizing the serial covered option strategy, with some trades timed to coincide with earnings was 41.5%, while the annualized S&P 500 return was 34.7%. A longer period of observation also yielded similar favorable results

In the case of potential trades seeking to reach those objectives when earnings are to be released, my preference is to see whether there is an option premium available for the sale of puts that is at the extreme end of the implied volatility range or beyond. For Coach, the implied volatility suggests expectations of a price move in the $47.50 to $57.50 range, based on Friday’s closing price of $52.56.

The $47 January 24, 2014 put premium satisfies the quest for a 1% return and is at a strike price slightly outside of the implied volatility range. Essentially, the risk-reward proposition is a 1% return in the event of anything less than a 10% drop in share price. Anything more than a 10% price drop creates additional possibilities to generate returns, but extends the period of the trade.

As always, the sale of puts should only be undertaken if you’re prepared to take ownsership of shares at the strike price specified. While I wouldn’t shy away from share ownership in the event of a larger than anticipated price drop, I would be inclined to consider rolling over the put sale into a new expiration date and ideally at a lower strike price, if possible, repeating that process until expiration finally arrives.

While not everyone appreciates leather, everyone can appreciate investment profits, even if they come at the expense of corporate losses and a fall from grace.

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