Weekend Update – May 17, 2015

The nice thing about the stock and bond markets is that anything that happens can be rationalized.

That’s probably a good thing if your job includes the need to make plausible excuses, but unless you work in the finance industry or are an elected official, the chances are that particular set of skills isn’t in high demand.

However, when you hear a master in the art of spin ply his craft, it’s really a thing of beauty and you wonder why neither you nor anyone else seemed to see things so clearly in a prospective manner.

Sometimes rationalization is also referred to as self-deception. It is a defense mechanism and occasionally it becomes part of a personality disorder. Psychoanalysts are divided between a positive view of rationalization as a stepping-stone on the way to maturity and a more destructive view of it as divorcing feeling from thought and undermining powers of reason.

In other words, sometimes rationalization itself is good news and sometimes it’s bad news.

But when it comes to stock and bond markets any interpretation of events is acceptable as long as great efforts are taken to not overtly make anyone look like an idiot for either having made a decision to act or having made a decision to be passive.

That doesn’t preclude those on the receiving end of market rationalizations to wonder how they could have been so stupid as to have missed such an obvious connection and telegraphed market reaction.

That’s strange, because when coming to real life personal and professional events, being on the receiving end of rationalization can be fairly annoying. However, for some reason in the investing world it is entirely welcomed and embraced.

In hindsight, anything and everything that we’ve observed can be explained, although ironically, rationalization sometimes removes rational thought from the process.

The real challenge, or so it seems, in the market, is knowing when to believe that good news is good and when it is bad, just like you need to know what the real meaning of bad news is going to be.

Of course different constituencies may also interpret the very same bits of data very differently, as was the case this past week as bond and stock markets collided, as they so often do in competition for investor’s confidence.

We often find ourselves in a position when we wonder just how news will be received. Will it be received on its face value or will markets respond paradoxically?

This week any wonder came to an end as it became clear that we were back to a world of rationalizing bad news as actually being something good for us.

In this case it was all about how markets viewed the flow of earnings reports coming from national retailers and official government Retail Sales statistics.

In a nutshell, the news wasn’t good, but that was good for markets. At least it was good for stock markets. Bond markets are another story and that’s where there may be lots of need for some quick rationalizations, but perhaps not of the healthy variety.

In the case of stock markets the rationalization was that disappointing retail sales and diminished guidance painted a picture of decreased inflationary pressures. In turn, that would make it more difficult for an avowed data driven Federal Reserve to increase interest rates in response. So bad news was interpreted as good news.

If you owned stocks that’s a rationalization that seems perfectly healthy, at least until that point that the same process no longer seems to be applicable.

As the S&P 500 closed at another all time high to end the week this might be a good time to prepare thoughts about whether what happens next is because we hit resistance or whether it was because of technical support levels.

^TNX Chart

On the other hand, if you were among those thought to be a member of the smartest trading class, the bond traders, you do have to find a way to explain how in the face of no evidence you sent rates sharply higher twice over the past 2 weeks. Yet then presided over rates ending up exactly where they started after the ride came to its end.

The nice thing about that, though, is that the bond traders could just dust off the same rationalization they used for surging rates in mid-March 2015.

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

Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) has had a big two past weeks, not necessarily reflected in its share price, but in the news it delivered. The impending departure of John Chambers as CEO and the announcement of his successor, along with reporting earnings did nothing to move the stock despite better than expected revenues and profits. In fact, unlike so many others that reported adverse currency impacts, Cisco, which does approximately 40% of its revenues overseas was a comparative shining star in reporting its results.

However, unlike so many others that essentially received a free pass on currency issues, because it was expected and who further received a free pass on providing lowered guidance, Cisco’s lowered guidance was thought to muzzle shares.

However, as the expected Euro – USD parity is somehow failing to materialize, Cisco may be in a good position to over-deliver on its lowered expectations. In return for making that commitment to its shares with the chance of a longer term price move higher, Cisco offers a reasonable option premium and an attractive dividend.

Both reporting earnings this week, Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) and Hewlett Packard (NYSE:HPQ), have fortunes that are, to a small degree, related to one another.

In two weeks I will try to position myself next to the husband of the Hewlett Packard CEO at an alumni reunion group photo. By then it will be too late to get any earnings insights, not that it would be on my agenda, since I’m much more interested in the photo.

No one really knows how the market will finally react to the upcoming split of the company, which coincidentally will also be occurring this year at the previous employer of the Hewlett Packard CEO, Meg Whitman.

The options market isn’t anticipating a modest reaction to Hewlett Packard’s earnings, with an implied move of 5.2%. However, the option premiums for put sales outside the lower boundary of that range aren’t very appealing from a risk – reward perspective.

However, if the lower end of that boundary is breached after earnings are released and approach the 52 week lows, I would consider either buying shares or selling puts. If selling puts, however and faced with the prospects of rolling them over, I would be mindful of an upcoming ex-dividend event and would likely want to take ownership of shares in advance of that date.

I currently own shares of Best Buy and was hopeful that they would have been assigned last week so as to avoid them being faced with the potential challenge of earnings. Instead, I rolled those shares over to the June 2015 expiration, possibly putting it in line for a dividend and allowing some recovery time in the event of an earnings related price decline.

However, with an implied move of 6.6% and a history of some very large earnings moves in the past, the option premiums at and beyond the lower boundary of the range are somewhat more appealing than is the case with Hewlett Packard.

As with Hewlett Packard, however, I would consider waiting until after earnings and then consider the sale of puts in the event of a downward move. Additionally, because of an upcoming ex-dividend date in June, I would consider taking ownership of shares if puts are at risk of being exercised.

It’s pretty easy to rationalize why MetLife (NYSE:MET) is such an attractive stock based on where interest rates are expected to be going.

The only issue, as we’ve seen on more than one recent occasion is that there may be some disagreement over the timing of those interest rate hikes. Since MetLife responds to those interest rate movements, as you might expect from a company that may be added to the list of “systemically important financial institutions,” there can be some downside if bonds begin trading more in line with prevailing economic softness.

In the interim, while awaiting the inevitable, MetLife does offer a reasonable option premium, particularly as it has traded range-bound for the past 3 months.

A number of years ago the controlling family of Cablevision (NYSE:CVC) thought it had a perfectly rationalized explanation for why public shareholders would embrace the idea of taking the company private.

The shareholding public didn’t agree, but Cablevision hasn’t sulked or let the world pass it by as the world of cable providers is in constant flux. Although a relatively small company it seems to get embroiled in its share of controversy, always keeping the company name in the headlines.

With a shareholder meeting later this month and shares going ex-dividend this week, the monthly option, which is all that is offered, is very attractive, particularly since there is little of controversy expected at the upcoming shareholder meeting.

Also going ex-dividend this week, and also with strong historical family ties, is Johnson and Johnson (NYSE:JNJ). What appeals to me about shares right now, in addition to the dividend, is that while they have been trailing the S&P 500 and the Health Care SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLV) since early 2009, those very same shares tend to fare very well by comparison during periods of overall market weakness.

In the process of waiting for that weakness the dividend and option premium can make the wait more tolerable and even close the performance gap if the market decides that 2022 on the S&P 500 is only a way station toward something higher.

Finally, there are probably lots of ways one can rationalize the share price of salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM). Profits, though, may not be high on that list.

salesforce.com has certainly been the focus of lots of speculation lately regarding a sale of the company. However, of the two suitors, I find it inconceivable that one of them would invite the CEO, Marc Benioff back into a company that already has a power sharing situation at the CEO level and still has Larry Ellison serving as Chairman.

I share price was significantly buoyed by the start of those rumors a few weeks ago and provide a high enough level that any disappointment from earnings, even on the order of those seen with Linkedin (NYSE:LNKD), Yelp (NYSE:YELP) and others would return shares to levels last seen just prior to the previous earnings report.

The options market is implying a 7.3% earnings related move next week. After a recent 8% climb as rumors were swirling, there is plenty of room for some or even all of that to be given back, so as with both Best Buy and Hewlett Packard, I wouldn’t be overly aggressive in this trade prior to earnings, but would be very interested in joining in if sellers take charge on an earnings disappointment. However, since there is no dividend in the picture, if having sold puts and subject to possible exercise, I would likely attempt to rollover the puts rather than take assignment.

But either way, I can rationalize the outcome.

Traditional Stocks: Cisco, MetLife

Momentum Stocks: none

Double Dip Dividend: Cablevision (5/20), Johnson and Johnson (5/21)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Best Buy (5/21 AM), Hewlett Packard (5/21 PM), salesforce.com (5/20 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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