There was no shortage of news stories that could have prevented the market from setting yet another new closing high this week.
While much of the week was spent on discussing the tragic sequence of events leading to the death of Joan Rivers, markets still had a job to do, but may have been in no position to stop the momentum, regardless of the nature of more germane events.
Despite what everyone agrees to have been a disappointing Employment Situation Report, the market shrugged off that news and closed the week at another new record. They did so as many experts questioned the validity of the statistics rather than getting in the way of a market that was moving higher.
As the saying goes “you don’t step in front of a moving train.”
The previous day, with the announcement by ECB President Mario Draghi of further decreases in interest rates and more importantly the institution of what is being referred to as “Quantitative Easing Lite,” the market chose to ignore the same reasoning that many believed was behind our own market’s steady ascent and could, therefore, pose a threat to that continued ascent.
Many agreed that the Federal Reserve’s policy of Quantitative Easing was a major reason for our equity market’s climb, as it fueled a flight of assets from low return bonds and from overseas. Now, with the same ingredients being assembled for a similar environment in European markets “QE Lite” could represent competition to US equity markets through our own flight of assets.
Barry Ritholtz, a noted equities analyst, recently commented that the drop in CNBC viewership to all time low levels was a “hugely bullish” sign for the markets, using their viewership as a contrarian indicator.
Never mind that along with them may be the loss of continued fuel to propel the markets onward, or consistent with disappointing employment numbers perhaps viewers are electing to drop their basic cable service before giving up their smartphone data plans.
There aren’t too many ways to stop a runaway train. The sheer momentum of a heavy projectile moving at high speed is hard to counter. You really don’t want to step in front of it as a primary strategy.
What makes that train run, however, is its fuel and at some point that fuel runs out.
However, by the same token there was no shortage of news that could have sent the markets soaring much higher.
Fuel, meet brakes.
Instead, the week closed up only slightly higher, yet continuing the weekly record of more new highs that lasted all throughout August.
What the market didn’t do was to embrace the news of a Ukraine-Russia truce, whereas weeks earlier it had shown that it cared deeply about such news, rallying on its rumor and falling on renewed conflict.
Even runaway trains may be able to be controlled by applying the brakes. The lack of a strong response to the thought of a lasting truce in the Ukraine conflict may be a reflection of some working brakes that may still be part of the equation.
While this week did finish at another new closing high, it did so without real conviction. While a runaway train would have great difficulty staying on track when coming to a curve, that may be precisely where the market now finds itself.
Whether it derails or not may be as much related to whether that curve is an inflection or simply a barrier to seeing what may lay ahead.
This past week, I think the market actually got it right, by not over-reacting to anything, as it demonstrated caution, perhaps aware that the curve ahead was steep.
How unusual would that have been? Rational markets?
As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum or “PEE” categories.
A number of potential selections this week share the common bond of having been recipients of bad news recently.
British Petroleum (BP), a perennial bad guy when it comes to environmental record and safety received word of an $18 billion fine related to the devastating Gulf Oil spill. Despite a bounce back on Friday and assignment of shares that I had bought just the previous day, the response to that fine is very reminiscent of the initial reaction to similar news that greeted Anadarko (APC).
The bad news is tantamount to nothing more than metaphoric brakes having now been applied and defining the end of their liability. On the other hand, there is certainly the possibility of payment being delayed for years as appeals work their way through the judicial system or an agreement to a lesser penalty, which could only buoy shares. The introduction of this new level of uncertainty certainly buoyed British Petroleum’s option premiums last week and that appears to be carrying through to the coming week.
The Gap (GPS) remains an anachronism as it reports monthly same store sales. For those following those results it appears that every month or two the story is at a polar opposite to previous reports and the stock responds accordingly. This time the report showed a 2% decline, whereas analysts were expecting a 2% increase in sales.
The subsequent sharp decline in shares was eased somewhat my the market’s close and is still somewhat higher than I would like to re-initiate a position, but it is back on the radar screen after having been recently assigned. At the $42 level it has been a very good covered call trade.
eBay (EBAY), despite the steady stream of disparagement, has been one of my favorite positions. It, like The Gap is a little higher than where I would ideally like to start or add to a position, but then again, what isn’t?
The bad news confronting eBay may become reality this week, as Apple (AAPL) unveils its new products on Tuesday, which are rumored to incorporate a payment system that could then compete directly with eBay’s PayPal division.
Based upon the market’s reaction to news of Carl Icahn’s position in eBay and the reaction upon rumor that eBay was telling prospective PayPal officers that it would be spun off, suggests that competition could be beneficial to eBay’s share price, as it could speed up the spin off of a very valuable asset, particularly before that asset has a chance to erode.
eBay’s option premiums for the coming week certainly are reflective of near term uncertainty that is very likely related to what most have probably already discounted.
One of the things that has made eBay a favorite of mine is the serial nature in which I’ve been able to buy shares and sell calls over the past few years. That’s a characteristic that isn’t found frequently enough and depends on a stock’s being able to trade in a reasonably defined range, while still having some occasional spikes and plunges.
T-Mobile (TMUS) is beginning to show some of those same characteristics, although it may not be in the picture for as long as eBay has been, owing to the clear message that it is in play. It needs a capital infusion just as it needs more spectrum. Its parent has already indicated that it would be a willing seller at $35.
Demonstrating some support at $28.50 and having an apparent upper cap, I like when ranges are defined, particularly as its price can easily modulate itself within that range on any news or rumor. Those sort of events help to keep its option premium appealing and enable it to be traded on a serial basis, as well, or simply rolling over option contracts to help the premiums accumulate.
I haven’t owned shares of Kors (KORS) for a while, and have not been particularly fond of it as it has largely been held responsible for the sales and share price woes at Coach (COH), which like eBay, has been one of my covered option favorites, thanks to its price mediocrity, but consistent option premium stream.
With news of a secondary stock offering whose shares represent complete divestiture by the private equity firm that once held a majority interest in the company and the departure of two board members, it can’t get too much worse for shares, unless it too is a runaway train.
News of product discounting and slowing revenue growth compounds the insult of not receiving any of the proceeds of the secondary offering, which is expected to close this coming week. As with a number of other stocks in the “bad news” category, the option premiums are elevated, but much of the bad news may have already been digested.
Among this week’s potential dividend selections, there is some recent bad news at AIG (AIG), which hasn’t been reflected in its share price.
That is additional credit to Robert Benmosche, the past CEO, who recently announced that his longstanding cancer is now thought to be of a terminal nature. His legacy, will undoubtedly include him as one of the heroes coming out of the financial crisis, with a reputation enhanced by his commitment even during periods of personal duress.
While no one is going to chase shares of AIG in order to capture its tiny dividend, it along with a number of other stocks highlighted this week continue the strategy of looking for positions that have trailed the S&P 500 during the past summer. Unlike some of the others burdened by recent bad news, AIG isn’t offering an enriched option premium, again somewhat of a tribute to the stability created by Benmosche.
Both Coca Cola (KO) and Merck (MRK) are ex-dividend this week. Neither is a frequent point of focus for me, but both may represent some reasonable safety, although Merck has out-performed the S&P 500 this summer.
As is commonly the case with companies that are DJIA components that offer better than average dividends, there isn’t as readily obtainable advantage to attempting to “double dip.” For that reason, when considering the purchase of shares in advance of the dividend and if using an in the money strike price, it may make some sense to use something other than a weekly option, so that the additional time value may end up being a factor in limiting the incidence of early exercise.
Despite both companies having significant international exposure I don’t believe that any near term flare ups will unduly drag either of them downward and during a period of continuing low volatility those dividends look ever more attractive, particularly if risk is mitigated.
Finally, Whole Foods (WFM), while not one of my recent favorite stocks, has lately been presenting excellent opportunity to whittle down paper losses on an all too expensive lot of shares that has been sitting fallow, with no hedges sold against it for a while.
It appears, from its recent price behavior that shares have found some reasonable support at $38.50 and may be ready to begin a climb higher as it may start deriving some benefits from its significant expansion over the past year. Together with the fact that its controversial co-CEO hasn’t said much in the way of inflammatory comments lately, has helped the shares maintain some semblance of stability.
In this case, Whole Foods may be ready to be the beneficiary of some good news. It, along with some others this week, are offering option premiums that are in clear contrast to the steadily decreasing premiums more commonly being seen.
Personally, I’m all for this runaway train to keep running, just as long as it does so at a reasonable speed, so that there’s plenty of opportunity to get off. Perhaps this past week’s performance shows some good common sense, which is what really makes it so unusual, but would represent a welcome change.
Traditional Stocks: British Petroleum, eBay, The Gap, Whole Foods
Momentum: Kors, T-Mobile
Double Dip Dividend: AIG (9/9). Coca Cola (9/11), Merck (9/11)
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.