Weekend Update – November 13, 2016

Following the past week, it should be pretty easy to know what to do when the experts chime in and compete for your attention.

You run as far and as fast as your feet can possibly take you.

It will be fascinating to walk into a physician’s waiting room about 6 months from now and pick up some seven and eight month old copies of the news magazines sprinkled around the various end tables.

I’ve always enjoyed reading those aged articles just to get a snicker over how wrong the futurists and the experts consistently demonstrate themselves to be.

Most of the time, I don’t even have an appointment or any need. I just go to do the reading and then leave when someone finally asks “Sir, have you been helped?”

From the 99% probability of a Clinton victory in the Presidential election, as put forward by the Princeton Election Consortium, or the less sanguine 60-70% probability put forward by competitor fivethirtyeight, no one of any credibility got it right.

My guess is that if these elections predictions were written by stock analysts, the probability of a Clinton victory would have been reduced to 30% the day after the election, just as price targets and ratings are so often changed after stock moving news has already done its work.

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Weekend Update – May 15, 2016

It took every last bit of my courage to jump out of a plane.

That was with a parachute and I only did so after suspending all of the logical and rational thoughts that I possessed.

Sometimes you do very uncharacteristic things when you want to impress someone for some other kind of excitement.

No other level of excitement could ever be high enough to get me to further suspend logic to engage in a free fall, though.

I don’t care how exhilarating it might be, staying alive seems more exhilarating to me.

Some free falls don’t require your consent, though and unless you’ve positioned yourself short in advance of the free fall, it’s definitely not an exhilarating process.

The past week was one in which oil wasn’t the prevailing theme even as it had its own large moves.

Instead, it was the free fall of retail, led by Macy’s (M) and Nordstrom (JWN), arguably among the best of the major national retailers, that characterized the stock market.

Of course, Macy’s and then Nordstrom took most every other retailer down with them and were able to drag along many others.

That kind of free fall, though, leaves open the question of exactly where the floor happens to be. 

On a positive note, hitting the floor after a market free fall is probably a lot better than hitting the floor following a recreational free fall and you do get the chance to play the game a bit longer.

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Weekend Update – April 24, 2016

Most of us can recall a time when we were embarrassed, unless you need for denial is a stronger than your memory.

It’s probably much worse when there are a lot of people around as witnesses.

It may be even worse if your antics are under embargo, finally being released at 2 PM, say on a Wednesday, and then really called into question the following day with the planned release of the GDP.

There’s nothing like being under the spotlight, especially when purposefully bringing attention to yourself and then somehow messing up.

I imagine, that even as poised and calm as she appears as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a young Janet Yellen may have been as easily subject to embarrassment as a child as any of us.

Obviously, I also imagine that the hairdo hasn’t changed over the years.

Of course, it could be really helpful to know what the actual GDP statistic will be and having your performance altered to meet the demands of reality.

This coming week has an FOMC Statement release which is followed barely 20 hours later by news of the GDP for the first quarter of 2016.

As the FOMC meeting gets underway on Tuesday, there is no doubt awareness of the consensus calling for lackluster GDP growth and the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s own decreased estimate just a few weeks ago.

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Weekend Update – January 3, 3016

The "What If" game is about as fruitless as it gets, but is also as much a part of human nature as just about anything else.

How else could I explain having played that game at a high school reunion?

That may explain the consistent popularity of that simple question as a genre on so many people’s must read lists as the New Year begins.

Historical events lead themselves so beautifully to the "What If" question because the cascading of events can be so far reaching, especially in an interconnected world.

Even before that interconnection became so established it didn’t take too much imagination to envision far reaching outcomes that would have been so wildly different around the world even a century or more later.

Imagine if the Union had decided to cede Fort Sumpter and simply allowed the South to go its merry way. Would an abridged United States have been any where near the force it has been for the past 100 years? What would that have meant for Europe, the Soviet Union, Israel and every other corner of the world?

Second guessing things can never change the past, but it may provide some clues for how to approach the future, if only the future could be as predictable as the past.

Looking back at 2015 there are lots of "what if" questions that could be asked as we digest the fact that it was the market’s worst performance since 2008.

In that year the S&P 500 was down about 37%, while in 2015 it was only down 0.7%. That gives some sense of what kind of a ride we’ve been on for the past 7 years, if the worst of those years was only 0.7% lower.

But most everyone knows that the 0.7% figure is fairly illusory.

For me the "what if" game starts with what if Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and a handful of others had only performed as well as the averages.

Of course, even that "what if" exercise would continue to perpetuate some of the skew seen in 2015, as the averages were only as high as they were due to the significant out-performance of a handful of key constituent components of the index. Imagining what if those large winners had only gone down 0.7% for the year would still result in an index that wouldn’t really reflect just how bad the underlying market was in 2015.

While some motivated individual could do those calculations for the S&P 500, which is a bit more complex, due to its market capitalization calculation, it’s a much easier exercise for the DJIA.

Just imagine multiplying the 10 points gained by Microsoft , the 30 pre-split points gained by Nike (NKE), the 17 points by UnitedHealth Group (UNH), the 26 points by McDonalds (MCD) or the 29 points by Home Depot (HD) and suddenly the DJIA which had been down 2.2% for 2015, would have been another 761 points lower or an additional 4.5% decline.

Add another 15 points from Boeing (BA) and another 10 from Disney (DIS) and we’re starting to inch closer and closer to what could have really been a year long correction.

Beyond those names the pickings were fairly slim from among the 30 comprising that index. The S&P 500 wasn’t much better and the NASDAQ 100, up for the year, was certainly able to boast only due to the performances of Amazon, Netflix (NFLX), Alphabet and Facebook (FB).

Now, also imagine what if historically high levels of corporate stock buybacks hadn’t artificially painted a better picture of per share earnings.

That’s not to say that the past year could have only been much worse, but it could also have been much better.

Of course you could also begin to imagine what if the market had actually accepted lower energy and commodity prices as a good thing?

What if investors had actually viewed the prospects of a gradual increase in interest rates as also being a good thing, as it would be reflective of an improving, yet non-frothy, economy?

And finally, for me at least, What if the FOMC hadn’t toyed with our fragile emotions and labile intellect all through the year?

Flat line years such as 2015 and 2011 don’t come very often, but when they do, most dispense with the "what if" questions and instead focus on past history which suggests a good year to follow.

But the "what if" game can also be prospective in nature, though in the coming year we should most likely ask similar questions, just with a slight variation.

What if energy prices move higher and sooner than expected?

What if the economy expands faster than we expected?

What if money is running dry to keep the buyback frenzy alive?

Or, what if corporate earnings actually reflect greater consumer participation?

You may as well simply ask what if rational thought were to return to markets?

But it’s probably best not to ask questions when you may not be prepared to hear the answer.

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

For those, myself included, who have been expecting some kind of a resurgence in energy prices and were disbelieving when some were calling for even further drops only to see those calls come true, it’s not really clear what the market’s reaction might be if that rebound did occur.

While the market frequently followed oil lower and then occasionally rebounded when oil did so, it’s hard to envision the market responding favorably in the face of sustained oil price stability or strength.

I’ve given up the idea that the resurgence would begin any day now and instead am more willing to put that misguided faith into the health of financial sector stocks.

Unless the FOMC is going to toy with us further or the economy isn’t going to show the kind of strength that warranted an interest rate increase or warrants future increases, financials should fare well going forward.

This week I’m considering MetLife (MET), Morgan Stanley and American Express (AXP), all well off from their 2015 highs.

MetLife, down 12% during 2015 is actually the best performer of that small group. As with Morgan Stanley, almost the entirety of the year’s loss has come in the latter half of the year when the S&P 500 was performing no worse than it had during the first 6 months of the year.

Both Morgan Stanley and MetLife have large enough option premiums to consider the sale of the nearest out of the money call contracts in an attempt to secure some share appreciation in exchange for a somewhat lo0wer option premium.

In both cases, I think the timing is good for trying to get the best of both worlds, although Morgan Stanley will be among the relatively early earnings reports in just a few weeks and still hasn’t recovered from its last quarter’s poorly received results, so it would help to be prepared to manage the position if still held going into earnings in 3 weeks.

By contrast, American Express reports on that same day, but all of 2015 was an abysmal one for the company once the world learned that its relationship with Costco (COST) was far more important than anyone had believed. The impending loss of Costco as a branded partner in the coming 3 months has weighed heavily on American Express, which is ex-dividend this week.

I would believe that most of that loss in share has already been discounted and that disappointments aren’t going to be too likely, particularly if the consumer is truly making something of a comeback.

There has actually been far less press given to retail results this past holiday season than for any that I can remember in the recent and not so recent past.

Most national retailers tend to pull rabbits out of their hats after preparing us for a disappointing holiday season, with the exception of Best Buy (BBY), which traditionally falls during the final week of the year on perpetually disappointing numbers.

Best Buy has already fallen significantly in th e past 3 months, but over the years it has generally been fairly predictable in its ability to bounce back after sharp declines, whether precipitous or death by a thousand cuts.

To my untrained eye it appears that Best Buy is building some support at the $30 level and doesn’t report full earnings for another 2 months. Perhaps it’s its reputation preceding it at this time of the year, but Best Buy’s current option premium is larger than is generally found and I might consider purchasing shares and selling out of the money calls in the anticipation of some price appreciation.

Under Armour (UA) is in a strange place, as it is currently in one of its most sustained downward trends in at least 5 years.

While Nike, its arch competitor, had a stellar year in 2015, up until a fateful downtrend that began in early October, Under Armour was significantly out-performing Nike, even while the latter was some 35% above the S&P 500’s performance.

That same untrained eye sees some leveling off in the past few weeks and despite still having a fairly low beta reflecting a longer period of observation than the past 2 months, the option premium is continuing to reflect uncertainty.

With perhaps some possibility that cold weather may finally be coming to areas where it belongs this time of the year, it may not be too late for Under Armour to play a game of catch up, which is just about the only athletic pursuit that I still consider.

Finally, Pfizer (PFE) has been somewhat mired since announcing a planned merger, buyout, inversion or whatever you like to have it considered. The initially buoyed price has fallen back, but as with Dow Chemical (DOW) which has also fallen back after a similar merger announcement move higher, it has returned to the pre-announcement level.

I view that as indicating that there’s limited downside in the event of some bad news related to the proposed merger, but as with Dow Chemical, Best Buy and Under Armour, the near term option premium continues to reflect perceived near term risk.

Whatever Pfizer;’s merger related risk may be, I don’t believe it will be a near term risk. From the perspective of a call option seller that kind of perception in the face of no tangible news can be a great gift that keeps giving.

Traditional Stocks: MetLife. Morgan Stanley, Pfizer

Momentum Stocks: Best Buy, Under Armour

Double-Dip Dividend: American Express (1/6 $0.29)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: none

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. The above selections may become actionable – most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts – in adjustment to and consideration of market movements. The overriding objective is to create a healthy income stream for the week, with reduction of trading risk.

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Weekend Update – November 15, 2015

Back in March 2015, when writing the article “It’s As Clear As Mud,” there was no reason to suspect that there would be a reason for a Part 2.

After all, the handwriting seemed to be fairly clear at that time and the interest rate hawks seemed to be getting their footing while laying out the ground rules for an interest rate increase that had already been expected for months prior.

In fact, back in July 2015, I wrote another article inadvertently also entitled “It’s As Clear As Mud,” but in my defense the reason for the confusion back then had nothing to do with the FOMC or the domestic US economy, so it wasn’t really a Part 2.

It was simply a case of more confusion abounding, but for an entirely different reason.

Not that the FOMC hadn’t continued their policy of obfuscation.

But here we are, 8 months after the first article and the FOMC is back at the center of confusion that’s reigning over the market as messages are mixed, economic data is perplexing and the intent of the FOMC seems to be going counter to events on the ground.

While most understand that extraordinarily low interest rates have some appeal and can also be stimulatory, there’s also the recognition that prolonged low interest rates are a reflection of a moribund economy.

While individuals may someday arrive at a point in their lives that they’re not interested in or seeking personal growth, economies always have to be in pursuit of growth unless their populations are shrinking or aging along with the individual.

Like Japan.

Most would agree that when it comes to the economy, we don’t want to be like the Japan we’ve come to know over the past generation.

So despite the stock market being unable to decide whether an increase in interest rates would be a good thing for it, an unbiased view, one that doesn’t directly benefit from cheap money, might think that the early phase of interest rate increases would simply be a reflection of good news.

Growth is good, stagnation is not.

However, the FOMC has now long maintained that it will be data driven, but what may be becoming clear is that they maintain the right to move the needle when it comes to deciding where thresholds may be on the data they evaluate.

After years of regularly being disappointed by monthly employment gains below 200,000, October 2015’s Employment Situation Report gave us a number that was below 150,000. While that was surprising, the real surprise may have come a few weeks later when the FOMC indicated that 150,000 was a number sufficiently high to justify that rate increase.

The October 2015 Employment Situation report came at a time that traders had a brief period of mental clarity. They had been looking at negative economic news as something being bad and had been sending the market lower from mid-August until the morning of the release, when it sent the market into a tailspin for an hour or so.

Then began a very impressive month long rally that was based on nothing more than an expectation that the poor employment statistics would mean further delay in interest rate hikes.

But then the came more and more hawkish talk from Federal Reserve Governors, an ensuing outstanding Employment Situation Report and terrible guidance from national retailers.

With a year of low energy prices, more and more people going back to work and minimum wage increases you would have good reason to think that retailers would be rejoicing and in a position to apply that basic law of supply and demand on the wares they sale.

But the demand part of that equation isn’t showing up in the top line, yet the hawkish FOMC tone continues.

The much discussed 0.25% increase isn’t very much and should do absolutely nothing to stifle an economy. While I’d love to see us get over being held hostage by the fear of such an increase by finally getting that increase, it’s increasingly difficult to understand the FOMC, which seems itself to be held hostage by itself.

Difficulty in understanding the FOMC was par for the course during the tenure of Alan Greenspan, but during the plain talk eras of Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen the words are more clear, it’s just that there seems to be so much indecisiveness.

That’s odd, as Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer are really brilliant, but may be finding themselves faced with an economy that just makes little sense and isn’t necessarily following the rules of the road.

We may find out some more of the details next week as the FOMC minutes are released, but if they’re confused, what chance do any of the rest of us have?

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

Last week was just a miserable week. I was probably more active in adding new positions than I should have been and took little solace in having them out-perform the market for the week, as they were losers, too.

This week has more potentially bad news coming from retail, at a time when I really expected some positive news, at least with regard to forward guidance.

But with Abercrombie and Fitch (NYSE:ANF) having fallen about 12% last week after having picked up a little strength in the previous week, I’m ready to look at it again as it reports earnings this week.

I am sitting on a far more expensive lot of Abercrombie and Fitch, although if looking for a little of that solace, I can find some in having also owned it on 6 other occasions in 2015 and 21 other times in the past 3 years.

Despite that one lot that I’m not currently on speaking terms with, this has been a stock that I’ve longed loved to trade.

It has been range-bound for much of the past 8 months, although the next real support level is about 20% below Friday’s closing price.

With that in mind, the option market is implying about a 13.3% price move next week. A 1% ROI could potentially be obtained by selling puts nearly 22% below that close.

A stock that I like to trade, but don’t do often enough has just come off a very bad single day’s performance. GameStop (NYSE:GME) received a downgrade this past week and fell 16.5%

The downgrade was of some significance because it came from a firm that has had a reasonably good record on GameStop, since first downgrading it in 2008 and then upgrading in 2015.

GameStop has probably been written off for dead more than any stock that I can recall and has long been a favorite for those inclined to short stocks.

Meanwhile, the options market is implying a 5.5% move next week, even though earnings aren’t to be reported until Monday morning of the following week.

A 1% ROI could possibly be achieved by selling a put contract at a strike level 5.8% below Friday’s close, but if doing that and faced with possible assignment resulting in ownership of shares, you need to be nimble enough to roll over the put contracts to the following or some other week in order to add greater downside protection.

For the following week the implied move is 12.5%, but part of that is also additional time value. However, the option market clearly still expects some additional possibility of large moves.

If you’re a glutton for more excitement, salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM) reports earnings this week and is no stranger to large price movements with or without earnings at hand.

Depending upon your perspective, salesforce.com is either an incredible example of great ingenuity or a house of cards as its accounting practices have been questioned for more than a decade.

The basic belief is that salesforce.com’s practice of stock based compensation will continue to work well for everyone as long as that share price is healthy, but being paid partially in the stock of a company whose share price is declining may seem like receiving your paycheck back in the days of Hungarian hyper-inflation.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that this week, as shares already did fall 4.6% last week.

The share price of salesforce.com has held up well even as rumors of a buyout from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) have gone away. The option market is implying a share price move of 8.1% next week and a 1% ROI might possibly be obtained if selling puts at a strike level 9.4% below Friday’s close.

Microsoft itself is ex-dividend this week and is one of those handful of stocks that has helped to create the illusion of a healthy broader market.

That’s because Microsoft, a member of both the DJIA and the S&P 500 is up nearly 14% for the year and is one of those few well performing companies that has helped
to absorb much of the shock that’s being experienced by so many other index components that are in correction or bear territory.

In fact, coming off its market correction lows in August, Microsoft shares are some 30% higher and is only about 5% below its recent high.

While that could be interpreted by some as its shares being a prime candidate for a decline in order to catch up with a flailing market, sometimes in times of weakness it may just pay to go with the prevailing strength.

While I’d rather consider its share purchase after a price decline and before its ex-dividend date, Microsoft’s ability to withstand some of the market’s stresses adds to its appeal right now.

On the other hand, Intel’s (NASDAQ:INTC) 5.1% decline last week and its 6.5% decline from its recent ex-dividend date when some of my shares were assigned away from me early, makes it appealing.

Despite a large differential in comparative performance between Microsoft and Intel in 2015, they have actually tracked one another very well through the year if you exclude two spikes higher in Microsoft shares in the past year.

With that in mind, in a week that I like the idea of adding Microsoft for its dividend, I also like the idea of adding more Intel, just for the sake of adding Intel and capturing a reasonably generous option premium, in the hopes that it keeps up with Microsoft.

Finally, also going ex-dividend in the coming week are Dunkin Brands (NASDAQ:DNKN) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ).

The former probably sells something that can help you if you’ve over-indulged in the former for far too long of a time.

Dunkin Brands only has monthly dividends, but this being the final week of the monthly cycle, some consideration can be given to using it as a quick vehicle in an attempt to capture both premium and dividend, or perhaps a longer term commitment in an attempt to also secure some meaningful gain from the shares.

Those shares are actually nearly 30% lower in the past 4 months and are within easy reach of a 22 year low.

I’m currently undecided about whether to look at the short term play or a longer term, but I am also considering using a longer term contract, but rather than looking for share appreciation, perhaps using an in the money option in the hopes of being assigned shares early and then moving on to another potential target with the recycled cash.

Johnson & Johnson is not one of those companies that has helped to create the illusion of a healthy market. If you factor in dividends, Johnson & Johnson has essentially mirrored the DJIA.

Over the past 5 years, with a very notable exception of the last quarter, Johnson & Johnson has tended to trade well in the few weeks after having gone ex-dividend.

For that reason I may look at the possibility of selling calls dated for the following week, or perhaps even the week after Thanksgiving and also thinking about some capital gains on shares in addition to its generous dividend, but somewhat lower out of the money premium.’

While thinking about what to do in the coming week, I may find myself munching on some Dunkin Donuts. That tends to bring me clarity and happiness.

Maybe I could have some delivered to the FOMC for their next meeting.

It couldn’t hurt.

Traditional Stocks:Intel

Momentum Stocks: GameStop

Double-Dip Dividend: Dunkin Donuts (11/19 $0.26), Johnson & Johnson (11/20 $0.75). Microsoft (11/17 $0.36)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Abercrombie and Fitch (11/20 AM), 11/18 PM)

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. The above selections may become actionable – most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts – in adjustment to and consideration of market movements. The overriding objective is to create a healthy income stream for the week, with reduction of trading risk.

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