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), salesforce.com (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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Abercrombie and Fitch Sets Itself Up for More Disappointment

disappointment

 

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

With low expectations shareholders of Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) were rewarded during Thursday’s after hours trading as it was announced that the company experienced higher than expected sales for the fourth quarter to date.

Embattled CEO and Chairman Michael Jeffries needed a boost after calls for his resignation and having been the recent recipient of Herb Greenberg’s “Worst CEO of 2013 Award.” The 15% surge, if maintained into trading to end the week will leave shares only about 30% below their 52 week high.

Perhaps lost in the translation are the nuances contained in the report that sent shares soaring that may set Abercrombie and Fitch share holders up for more disappointment in the future. Manufactured good news has a way of doing that once reality hits and it is difficult to interpret today’s press release as anything other than a very favorable spin on a company and a personality much in need of spin.

For the period in question, which ended on January 4, 2014, the company actually reported decreased total sales, but found some solace in the fact that its direct to consumer sales were at its highest level of total sales than ever before. Of course, as the total pie shrinks a component may look comparatively better by simply not shrinking as much. The details of the direct to consumer activities was lacking. Its growth, was by all accounts, relative.

While sales were reported to be better than expected they represented a 4% decrease in the United States and a 10% decrease in international sales. Improved guidance was based on the nine week period ending before much of the east coast freeze that is reported to have stalled mall traffic. It’s unclear how nature’s elements will project forward as the first quarter becomes the object of focus. Additionally, reliance on”ongoing cost reduction efforts” is rarely a strategy for growth. Jeffries’ one year contract extension may require something more substantive than smoke and mirrors to further extend the engagement. Marketing the company as “We’re Not Sears” is not likely to provide a prolonged bounce, much as today’s press release may be suspect.

But I don’t really care about any of that, because Abercrombie and Fitch, for all of its dysfunction and sometimes embaarrassing behavior of its CEO, has been one of my favorite stocks since May 2012. During that period of time I’ve owned shares on 18 occasions.

Abercrombie and Fitch hasn’t been a holding for the faint of heart during that period, nor for anyone abiding by a buy and hold strategy.

As a punctuated buy and hold investor, my sales have been dictated by the call contracts I routinely sold on holdings, almost always utilizing in the money or very near the money strike levels.

Abercrombie and Fitch

Perhaps coincidentally the average cost of those shares has been $38.64, which was just slightly higher than the after hours trading peak after its more than $5 climb. During the period in question shares were initiated at $35.15 and soared as high as $55.23 almost a year to the date of that opening position. A perfect market timer could have sold shares at the peak ans achieved a 59% return with dividends.

Not only am I not a perfect market timer, but I’m also not very patient and would have had a hard time holding onto shares for a full year. Instead my shares were held for reasonably short periods of time, other than one lot currently open for 4 months. During that time the cumulative return has been 56% while the shares themselves have appreciated less than 11% from the date of first purchase.

With some of my shares set to expire on Friday January 10, 2014 amd some others the very next week, there is a chance that I will be left with no shares, thanks to a well timed press release.

However, I have no doubts that Abercrombie and Fitch will find a way to undo investor goodwill and will see its price come down. When it does, I will be there, once again, eager to pick up the wounded shares of of a company that would be embarrassed to have me as a customer.

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