An incredibly quiet and uneventful week, cut short by the Thanksgiving Day holiday, saw the calm interrupted as a group of oil ministers from around the world came to an agreement.
They agreed that couldn’t agree, mostly because one couldn’t trust the other to partner in concerted actions what would turn out to be in everyone’s best interests.
If you’ve played the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game you know that you can’t always trust a colleague to do the right thing or to even do the logical thing. The essence of the game is that your outcome is determined not only by your choice, but also by the choice of someone else who may or may not think rationally or who may or may not believe that you think rationally.
The real challenge is figuring out what to do yourself knowing that your fate may be, to some degree, controlled by an irrational partner, a dishonest one or one who simply doesn’t understand the concept of risk – reward. That and the fact that they may actually enjoy stabbing you in the back, even if it means they pay a price, too.
Given the disparate considerations among the member OPEC nations looking out for their national interests, in addition to the growing influence of non-OPEC nations, the only reasonable course of action was to reduce oil production. But no single nation was willing to trust that the other nations would have done the right thing to maintain oil prices at higher levels, while still obeying basic laws of supply and demand, so the resulting action was no action. The stabbing in the back was probably in the minds of some member nations, as well.
If the stock market was somehow the partner in a separate room being forced to make a buying or selling decision based on what it thought the OPEC members would do, a reasonable stock market would have expected a reduction in supply by OPEC members in support of oil prices. After all, reasonable people don’t stab others in the back.
That decision would have resulted in either buying, or at least holding energy shares in advance of the meeting and then being faced with the reality that those OPEC members, hidden away, whose interests may not have been aligned with those of investors, made a decision that made no economic sense, other than perhaps to pressure higher cost producers.
And so came the punishment the following day, as waves of selling hit at the opening of trading. Not quite a capitulation, despite the large falls, because panic was really absent and there was no crescendo-like progression, but still, the selling was intense as many headed for the exits.
While fleeing, the question of whether this decision or lack of decision marked the death of the OPEC cartel, meaning that oil would start trading more on those basic laws and not being manipulated by nations always seeking the highest reward.
The more religious and national tensions existing between member nations and the more influence of non-member nations the less likely the cartel can act as a cartel.
The poor UAE oil minister at a press conference complained that it wasn’t fair for OPEC to be blamed for low oil prices, forgetting that once you form a cartel the concept of fairness is already taken off of the table, as for more than 40 years the cartel has unfairly squeezed the world for every penny it could get.
With the belief that the death of OPEC may be at hand comes the logical, but mistaken belief that the ensuing low oil prices would be a boon for the stock market. That supposition isn’t necessarily backed up by reality, although logic would take your mind in that direction.
As it happens, rising oil prices, especially when due to demand outstripping supply makes for a good stock market, as it reflects accelerating economic growth. Falling oil prices, if due to decreased demand is certainly not a sign of future economic activity. However, we are now in some uncharted territory, as falling prices are due to supply that is greater than demand and without indication that those falling prices are going to result in a near term virtuous cycle that would send markets higher.
What we do know is that creates its own virtuous cycle as consumers will be left with more money to spend and federal and state governments will see gas taxes revenues increase as people drive more and pay less.
The dilemma now facing investors is whether there are better choices than energy stocks at the moment, despite what seems to be irrationally low pricing. The problem is that those irrational people in the other room are still in control of the destinies of others and may only begin to respond in a rational manner after having experienced maximum pain.
As much as I am tempted to add even more energy stocks, despite already suffering from a disproportionately high position, the lesson is clear.
When in doubt, don’t trust the next guy to do the right thing.
As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum or “PEE” categories.
When Blackstone (NYSE:BX) went public a number of years ago, just prior to the financial meltdown, imagine yourself being held an a room and being given the option of investing your money in the market, without knowing whether the privately held company would decide to IPO. On the surface that might have sounded like a great idea, as the market was heading higher and higher. But the quandary was that you were being asked to make your decision without knowing that Blackstone was perhaps preparing an exit strategy for a perceived market top and was looking to cash out, rather than re-invest for growth.
Had you known that the money being raised in the IPO was going toward buying out one of the founders rather than being plowed back into the company your decision might have been different. Or had you known that the IPO was an attempt to escape the risks of a precariously priced market you may have reacted differently.
So here we are in 2014 and Blackstone, which is the business of buying struggling or undervalued businesses, nurturing them and then re-selling them, often through public markets, is again selling assets.
Are they doing so because they perceive a market peak and are securing profits or are they preparing to re-invest the assets for further growth? The dilemma faced is across the entire market and not just Blackstone, which in the short term may be a beneficiary of its actions trying to balance risk and reward by reducing its own risk.
The question of rational behavior may be raised when looking at the share price response to Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) on Friday. In a classic case of counting chickens before they were hatched I was expecting my shares to be assigned on Friday.
While I usually wait until Thursday or Friday to try to make rollovers, this past shortened week I actually made a number of rollovers on Tuesday, which were serendipitous, not having expected Friday’s weakness. The rollover trade that didn’t get made was for Dow Chemcal, which seemed so likely to be assigned and would have offered very little reward for the rollover.
Who knew that it would be caught up in the energy sell-off, well out of proportion to its risk in the sector, predominantly related to its Kuwaiti business alliances? The question of whether that irrational behavior will continue to punish Dow Chemical shares is at hand, but this drop just seems like a very good opportunity to add shares, both as part of corporate buybacks as well as for a personal portfolio. With my shares now not having been assigned, trading opportunities look beyond the one week horizon with an eye on holding onto shares in order to capture the dividend in late December.
The one person that I probably wouldn’t want to be in the room next to me when I was being asked to make a decision and having to rely on his mutual cooperation, would be John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS). He hasn’t given too much indication that he would be reluctant to throw anyone under the bus.
However, with some of the fuss about a potential buyout now on hiatus and perhaps the disappointment of no action in that regard now also on hiatus, shares may be settling back to its more sedate trading range.
That would be fine for me, still holding a single share lot and having owned shares on 5 occasions in the past year. Its option volume trading is unusually thin at times, however, and with larger bid – ask spreads than I would normally like to see. At its current price and now having withstood the pressures of its very aggressive pricing campaigns for about a year, I’m less concerned about a very bad earnings release and see upside potential as it has battled back from lower levels.
EMC Corp (NYSE:EMC) may also have had some of the takeover excitement die down, particularly as its most likely purchaser has announced its own plans to split itself into two new companies. Yet it has been able to continue trading at its upper range for the year.
EMC isn’t a terribly exciting company, but it has enough movement from buyout speculation, earnings and speculation over the future of its large VMWare (NYSE:VMW) holding to support an attractive option premium, in addition to an acceptable dividend.
I currently own shares of both Coach (NYSE:COH) and Mosaic (NYSE:MOS). They both are ex-dividend this coming week. Beyond that they also have in common the fact that I’ve been buying shares and selling calls on them for years, but most recently they have been mired at a very low price level and have been having difficulty breaking resistance at $38 and $51, respectively.
While they have been having difficulty breaking through those resistance levels they have also been finding strength at the $35 and $45 levels, respectively. Narrowing the range between support and resistance begins to make them increasingly attractive for a covered option trade, especially with the dividend at hand.
I’ve been sitting on some shares of General Motors (NYSE:GM) for a while and they are currently uncovered. I don’t particularly like adding shares after a nice rise higher, as General Motors had on Friday, but at its current price I think that it is well positioned to get back to the $35 level and while making that journey, perhaps buoyed by lower fuel prices, there is a nice dividend next week and some decent option premiums, as well. What is absolutely fascinating about the recent General Motors saga is that it has been hit with an ongoing deluge of bad news, day in and day out, yet somehow has been able to retain a reasonably respectable stock price.
Finally, it’s another week to give some thought to Abercrombie and Fitch (NYSE:ANF). That incredibly dysfunctional company that has made a habit of large price moves up and down as it tries to break away from the consumer irrelevancy that many have assigned it.
Abercrombie and Fitch recently gave some earnings warnings in anticipation of this week’s release and shares tumbled at that time. If you’ve been keeping a score card, lately the majority of those companies offering warnings or revising guidance downward, have continued to suffer once the earnings are actually released.
The options market is anticipating a 9.1% price move this week in response to earnings. However, it would still take an 11.8% decline to trigger assignment at a strike level that would offer a 1% ROI for the week of holding angst.
That kind of cushion between the implied move and the 1% ROI strike gives me reason to consider the risk of selling puts and crossing my fingers that some surprise, such as the departure of its always embattled CEO is announced, as a means of softening any further earnings disappointments.
Traditional Stocks: Blackstone, Dow Chemical, EMC Corp, General Motors
Double Dip Dividend: Coach (12/3), Mosaic (12/2)
Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Abercrombie and Fitch (12/3 AM)
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.