Weekend Update – August 18, 2013

I believe, although I could be mistaken, that an original version of the Bible suggested that “an octogenarian shall lead them.”

Last week I was wondering where the next catalyst was going to come from.

After a couple of years of headline grabbing events and man made disasters such as “Fiscal Cliff” and “Sequestration,” it was actually good to have a summer off. We didn’t even have the obligatory Greek banking crisis this August. The downside, of course, is that there’s nothing to react toward. Instead, stocks have had to trade on such fundamentals and basics as valuation and earnings. As with many traditions, there are fewer and fewer people who can remember the origins of such things.

If you can remember back almost a year, Apple (AAPL) was just hitting $700/share and it was the reason you could have discounted the other 499 stocks that comprised the S&P 500. As went Apple, so went the health of the overall market.

It was a simpler time.

Things have changed, but then came news that Carl Icahn had put together a “large” Apple position. Then came word the Leon Cooperman, Chairman of Omega Advisors, was equally ebullient about Apple.

Its shares immediately shot up an immediate $22 upon a simple Icahn Tweet. The “Cooperman Bump” was good for another 2%, but he’s much younger.

Wonderful. We needed market leadership and Apple was ready to take the reigns once again thanks to a couple of guys who have a combined 147 years between them. Can George Soros be far behind? Based on what his ownership had done for JC Penney (JCP) shares before he curiously added 2 million shares during the course of his divorce from a much younger Bill Ackman, you would probably prefer that he kept his distance if you were long Apple shares.

As it turns You can’t predicate an entire market on the basis of a nearly octogenarian investor’s lust for overseas cash piles. While Apple piled up even more cash reserves, it also added on to its share value while the market had a recently rare triple digit move downward and just came off its worst week in 2013.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to lead us to a better place where we know only of profits, dividends and buybacks. A place where we are always renewed and bathed in truth.

For me the market starts anew every week as I scan to see what positions have been assigned due to the sale of call options. As occasionally happens when a monthly cycle ends my world is essentially recreated, but you never know where the truth lies. What I do know is that far fewer of my positions were assigned this week than I had expected, even with the gift of Icahn.

With continually competing voices citing reasons we go higher matched off with equally compelling reasons we go lower, the standoff is as old as that between good and evil, but suddenly evil is looking stronger.

While it may seem inviting to have an octogenarian activist lead the way, the greatest likelihood is that such a shepherd has his own interests more at heart than that of his willing flock.

As usual, the week’s potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum and “PEE” selections this week (see details).

While my preference ordinarily is to focus on selling weekly options, given some uncertainty last week, I may look to sell more monthly contracts as a defensive measure in the event of a short term downturn.

In the past year the astute have noted that “as goes Google (GOOG), so does Apple not follow,” as the prevailing thesis was that it was not possible to be invested in them concurrently. While recent attention has deservedly shifted to Apple as it’s price moved higher on news of a new iPhone and then Icahn’s position, so too has attention shifted away from Google.

I haven’t owned shares of Google in more than a year and even though it has advanced steadily since then, its recent 6% decline is enough to get me interested once again. With the next lower support level nearly $100 away the risk may be greater than the underlying “beta” might suggest, but perhaps at any sign of Apple infatuation cooling we all know where the money has to be going.

If you have the stomach for such things JC Penney reports earnings this week. I own shares, including some bought just this week and subsequently assigned. However, had you asked me a few weeks ago, I would have believed that JC Penney comparative quarter results were going to be very positive. But once the high profile dissension from Bill Ackman, calling for a speedy appointment of a permanent CEO became known and that short term melodrama played itself out, my opinion changed considerably. It would seem unlikely that such internal controversy would arise before a surprisingly good earnings report.

However, for the adventurous selling puts expiring August 23, 2013 can return an 1.3% ROI and leave you without the need to own shares if a post-earnings related drop ends up being less than 25% The options market is anticipating a 17.5% decline.

Among the walking wounded this week was Macys (M). I’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity to own shares again, although those opportunities usually come when bad news is at hand. In this instance it was the same as had wounded numerous others this earnings season. With no other distractions during a quiet late summer people actually pay attention to such mundane things as earnings and guidance. In this case, they didn’t like what they heard, but that has by and large been the lot of retailers of late. Under the leadership of Terry Lundgren you do have to believe that if any retailer will be able to pull out from underneath the doldrums, it will be Macys.

Another of my favorite retailers, especially coming off price weakness, like most everything this past week, is Coach (COH). However, as with many of the stocks in this week’s listing, the challenge is whether what appears to be value pricing is instead, a value trap, as an overall declining market takes the good along with the bad lower. With an almost 14% drop since its earnings, Coach has had a head start on any
general decline which gives me some solace if investing new funds.

Following Cisco’s (CSCO) disappointing earnings report, which may have added fuel to the market’s weakness, the technology sector didn’t fare terribly well. John Chambers, the CEO has alternated from genius to out of touch and back to genius in the span of just a few years, but may now be returning to the “out of touch” category in the eyes of some.

However, for me, he evoked an image of Hoard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks (SBUX), who a number of quarters ago following a brutal reaction to a disappointing earnings report, provided one of the most ardent defenses of his company and why the reaction was so wrong. If you had faith in Schultz, you were well rewarded. I think Chambers offered a similar post-earnings response and despite te immediate concerns there is reason for following his zeal.

Oracle (ORCL) on the other hand, may offer a better return, based upon the option premiums which may reflect an earnings report near the end of the September 2013 option cycle. It’s often difficult to distinguish its CEO, Larry Ellison, from its product, but he was in the news this week with sometimes less than flattering comments about Apple and Google. The last times Oracle disappointed with its earnings reports Ellison didn’t follow the Schultz lead and instead, pointed fingers. WHile I may be looking for more monthly options during this week’s trading activity, an Oracle trade may be an exception.

Among the vanquished last week was Seagate Technology (STX). It’s 27% decline, however started in mid-July. I owned shares the previous week and they were assigned. Seagate is another position that I would strongly consider as a candidate for weekly option sales, particularly if using deep in the money strikes.

McGraw Hill FInancial (MHFI) goes ex-dividend this week and has been on a nice ride ever since the initial reaction to news that their role in the financial meltdown was to be investigated. In fact, it recently surpassed that point from which it fell off the cliff upon the news. Normally that would be a warning signal for me, however, shares have recently scaled back 5%. I think that McGraw Hill was unduly punished by the market and still, in fact, has catching up to do, despite its great run since February 2013, when there was a near immediate realization that the reaction was well overdone.

I’m a little ambivalent about adding additional shares of Transocean (RIG to my two existing lots. Just a few days earlier I felt reasonably assured that the $47 lot would be assigned. At that time I was already thinking of re-purchasing shares in order to capture the upcoming dividend. Also in the Icahn stable of companies in his radar scope, Transocean hasn’t fared quite as well as others, and has not yet increased its dividend as Icahn suggested, although its change has come to its executive offices. Together with Halliburton (HAL) and British Petroleum (BP), Transocean is one of the “Evil Troika” that consistently offers a good place to park money owing to its narrow trading range, option premiums and dividend payout.

Finally, although Mosaic (MOS) has appeared in each of the past two weekly articles, its selection never gets old as long as it keeps doing what it has so reliably done ever since news of the dismantling of the potash cartel became known. In this case, what it has done after suffering a 20% plunge is to slowly begin raising the bar higher as questions arise regarding the ability of the cartel to stay asunder. For the past three weeks I’ve erased substantial paper losses by adding shares and selling in the money calls whose premiums are enhanced by fear and uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring. The pattern that Mosaic has been taking is essentially two steps forward and one step back and that is just perfect for executing a serial covered call strategy that hopefully follows shares back

Traditional Stocks: Cisco, Google, Macys, Oracle

Momentum Stocks: Coach, Mosaic, Seagate Technology

Double Dip Dividend: McGraw Hill FInancial (ex-div 8/22 $0.28), Transocean (ex-div 8/21 $0.56)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: JC Penney (8/20 AM)

Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. The above selections may be 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 over-riding objective is to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.