MORNING BID – Retail therapy

Aug 13, 2014 13:11 UTC

All that’s left for investors now when it comes to earnings season is the shouting, but if the rest of the retailers post results anything like Kate Spade did on Tuesday, the shouts will be screams of terror rather than anything that assuages investors over the state of the overall economy. Kate Spade’s executives went into some detail on its conference call as to the nature of its margins shortfall – which Belus Capital chief equity strategist and longtime retail analyst Brian Sozzi said are not likely to improve until the middle of 2015 – and the company then did itself no favors by declaring that it wouldn’t be discussing the margin issues any further on the call. (Craig Leavitt, the CEO, violated that rule to some degree, but basically, investors don’t like it when you tell them flat-out that you’re not going to talk about your problems, and when you’re a company with a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 77.5 and a price-to-book value of 119, that’s going to be particularly true.)

Other luxury retailers have noted their own problems with attracting customers at this time, including Michael Kors Holdings, which saw its own shares stumble of late after also warning of margin pressures due to expansion in Europe, but at least Kors has a forward P/E ratio around 19, which puts it in line with peers like Coach and Ralph Lauren.

After Macy’s, which reported this morning – and put some ugly numbers out there

Wal-Mart has trailed the S&P for the last several years.

Wal-Mart has trailed the S&P for the last several years.

- the next big retailers out of the gate are Kohl’s, Nordstrom and Wal-Mart, and of course they’re all over the map when it comes to big retailers; Nordstrom profiles a bit more like Coach and Kate Spade in terms of clientele, but they’re a big department store, so not really comparable at all. Nordstrom’s growth, though, is expected to come from the Nordstrom Rack outlet stores, with same-store sales estimates for the entire company at 3.3 percent, but a 1.2 percent decline expected in the full-line sales, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Either way, investors will be keeping an eye on margins at Nordstrom’s and Tiffany & Co (which reports later in the month). Nordstrom, in its last release, said it expected a 30 to 50-basis point decline in gross profits for fiscal 2014 (which ends early 2015), compared with 10 to 30-basis points prior to its May earnings release, and its earnings before interest and taxes fell to 7.9 percent in the May quarter 2014, from 8.7 percent a year earlier. While some companies this quarter talked of margin pressures as a result of rising prices, with retailers it seems more to be their inability to get away from hefty discounting to bring consumers into the stores.

Wal-Mart is a trickier case. Sozzi, for his part, believes the company could fall short of results if inventory growth continued to grow faster than net sales, and if they relied heavily on clearance zones to move inventory, that will hurt overall margins as well. The company forecast second-quarter profit below analysts’ expectations in May, and so investors are going to see if there’s any sign that its execution is changing now that it has appointed a new CEO and new head of online business. The company has seen margins slipping as well, as its pre-tax, pre-interest and depreciation margins dipped from the high 7s between 2011 and 2013 to 7.5 percent in 2014, and it’s trailing the S&P badly in the last several years.

MORNING BID – Margins, China and whatever else

Aug 12, 2014 12:46 UTC

We’re deep into a period where the earnings calendar has basically dried up and the news flow overall is pretty slim, so the market will hang whatever gains it can on thin reeds – deals involving master-limited partnerships here, results from the likes of Sysco (the food services company there), and maybe Priceline.com in the mix too. The broader economic signals remain the more important ones for markets right now, and while they’re not uniformly outstanding, there are some hopeful signs for those finally looking for an acceleration in activity.

The earnings situation has been better than anticipated – Goldman Sachs notes that margins broke out of an 8.4-to-8.9 percent rate in the second quarter, ticking up to 9.1 percent, and the firm’s corporate “Beige Book” – a compendium of company comments – shows that the concerns the C suite has looks more like the concerns of those seeing accelerating demand and rising prices, and not slack demand and weak pricing power. They cited a strengthening corporate outlook, margin forecasts coming under pressure as a result of inflation expectations, and a combined focus on spending money on both buybacks and capital investment. Furthermore, companies have been less negative than in the recent past when it comes to revisions, and guidance for the fourth quarter of this year and first quarter 2015 was revised higher.

China – per Goldman Sachs, company conference calls that had a focus on international and emerging-markets growth say everything hinges on China. The expectation is for rates to remain lower for longer, but the country is dealing with a real difficult time in its domestic property/construction. Citigroup researchers believe that the central bank is going to keep the spigot going as best as they can – so they revised their 2014 growth forecast higher, to 7.5 percent from 7.3 percent.

Not all is hunky-dory. Until the Fed exits the game, at least from its bond-buying and then as it eventually starts to slim its balance sheet, there will be plenty of fuel for some to argue that the gains are built mostly on cheap money that isn’t having the required exponential effect on economic growth as it should. Underemployment remains a problem, one that isn’t easily sloughed off as the ‘cheap money’ argument, and while some credit dislocations are being seen, they’re not nearly as big as has been seen in the past. The relative calm that pervades is also a risk, particularly if the Fed heads in the direction it is expected to and gets out of QE. Volatility rose after the ends of QE1 and QE2 (events played a role too) so that’s always a concern, but the markets will have to learn to walk again eventually.

MORNING BID – Once Upon a Dream

Aug 5, 2014 12:47 UTC

Disney is expected to report third-quarter results after market close and is likely to beat average analyst estimates, according to StarMine. The media company’s results could get a boost from “Maleficent”, its revisionist take on “Sleeping Beauty” featuring Angelina Jolie, but the company’s prowess doesn’t end there, not with “Captain America: Winter Soldier” also a box-office champ in 2014 – which was also released during its most recent reporting period.

The studio budget for Maleficent was said to be somewhere around $180 million, so it’s not as if this was a cheap one, but consider that it posted worldwide grosses of $727 million, ranking it third for 2014, with the fourth-place film being Captain America (which cost $170 million), and also came through through Disney’s Buena Vista studios, per BoxOfficeMojo data.

The lion’s share of the top-grossing movies in 2014 count anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of their grosses from overseas (with Paramount’s unkillable Transformers franchise getting three-quarters of its dollars coming out of international markets), and just five movies this year have grossed more than $700 million total worldwide, with Disney responsible for two of them. Considering its ownership of the surefire-hit Star Wars coming in 2015 and whatever else the studio can squeeze out of the Marvel franchises (another Thor movie coming, another Avengers movie on the way) it makes some sense to see that the stock is trading at a level a bit outside of the rest of the market in terms of its relative valuation.

Intriguingly, looking at a Starmine screen of other media companies, the stock actually trades at a discount to its peers CBS, Time Warner and Twenty-First Century Fox when it comes to its price-to-forward 12-month earnings (on average, a discount of about 10 percent) and even more so when considering its price-to-forward cash flow levels as well (a discount of about 34 percent). That’s even as the stock has been the Dow’s best performer in terms of price change over the last five years with a 227 percent return, outdoing all of its rivals in the 30-stock average (it’s in the top 50 in the S&P 500, trailing the typical biotech and internet retailers as one might expect), and steadily increasing profit margins in the last decade from high-single digits to low-to-mid teens.

Investors – and companies – are increasingly trying to pay for content, hence the 21st Century Fox pursuit of Time Warner (really, Game of Thrones, let’s not mince words) and a Disney riding high on the success of the Marvel tentpole productions and about to double-down on the Star Wars franchise by getting the band back together along with a bunch of interesting new cast members has a lot of room to run (and we haven’t even mentioned whatever princess movie it’ll have on the way too, which includes a live-action Cinderella, along with a long-awaited Finding Nemo sequel). So, uh, Hakuna Matata?

MORNING BID – Recipe for a correction

Aug 4, 2014 12:43 UTC

The ingredients have been in place for some time for a correction – it’s only taken some kind of spark to ignite them, and yes, it’s a bit early for such mixed metaphors. The market has dipped 3.2 percent from its highs, and while that’s not all that much, it’s enough, as Dan Greenhaus of BTIG puts it in late Sunday commentary, to generally result in a bit of dip-buying. That said, the softness of late in auto sales and some really ugly housing data does point to the possibility that the economy’s direction is just squishy enough to warrant a bit more of a pullback, and Greenhaus, one of the Street’s more reliable bulls right now, says even his firm doesn’t “have high conviction right now” as far as a rally.

With the Russell 2000 having given up a more significant portion of its gains — this small-cap index was a super underperformer throughout July and hasn’t really distinguished itself for all of 2014 — and the earnings season for the most part starting to wind down (particularly for bigger names) there doesn’t end up being a lot of real good reasons to take the market higher right now. Sure, investors on some levels may start to put money to work, but given the thin volumes the appetite for additional risk is probably going to be muted. The one exception may be from foreigners, who will probably keep pushing money to the U.S. market, in part because of favorable interest rate differentials.

The question is whether the weak technicals investors are seeing in the Russell are going to be replicated across the big-cap S&P 500. Many stocks are in corrections currently, and the Russell currently is approaching oversold territory – near support levels around 1080, according to RBS strategist Robert Sluymer. He notes that we could see a rebound around the middle of the month, but the leadership in the mid- and small-cap indexes has been weakening compared with the large-cap names. That doesn’t mean the entire market is doomed – but does possibly augur for more lackluster action in the next several weeks.

MORNING BID – On GDP, the Fed, Argentina, and lots of other things

Jul 30, 2014 13:45 UTC

To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff here. The U.S. economy did end up rebounding in the second quarter, with a 4 percent rate of growth that’s much better than anyone anticipated – and the first-quarter decline was revised to something less horrible, so investors worried about the economy are a bit less freaked out at this particular moment.

Of course, that still means that the economy only grew 0.9 percent in the first half of the year, and that’s not all that amazing, but the economy in the second quarter grew in areas that matter the most – business spending, consumer spending and to a lesser extent government, which was such a drag on GDP for a good long time that can’t be just ignored. In tandem with the GDP figure, the ADP report said 218,000 jobs were added for private payrolls for July, another strong month that portends a good showing out of the Labor Department figures on Friday. That’s all at a time when the housing indicators continue to weaken, which is still a concern, and some even believe that auto sales have probably hit their apex as well for this cycle, given so much of the buying was based on incentives, but we’ll get better clarity on that on Friday.

The good data overall has given the dollar a jolt, continuing a strong run for the U.S. currency that strategists believe will be maintained for some time now. The euro hit a low of $1.3369 overnight and is at levels not seen since November, and the dollar is at one-month highs against the yen.

The dollar in coming days and months clearly will hinge on data and how the Federal Reserve and bond yields react to it, particularly when you see the differential between U.S. and European rates. Spain’s 10-year note yield dropped through the U.S. rate as of yesterday, and Germany’s annual inflation slowed to a 0.8 percent rate of growth, which should keep the lid on the euro. Net short positions in the euro have been increasing, with nearly 89,000 in short positions among speculators as of last week, according to CFTC data, while dollar/yen short positions are slowly being liquidated, dropping to 53,000 last week from about 82,000 in mid-June.

That’s a notable shift, and similar things are happening in sterling; Marc Chandler of Brown Brothers Harriman said this morning that the dollar is “turning,” with the next technical breach on the euro coming around $1.3325, and he says it could fall to $1.3230. Again, the attractiveness of the U.S. dollar when weighed against super-low European yields should keep some funds coming into Treasuries, so the lower-for-longer argument persists, and money will keep rushing in as yields become more attractive – the two year note is now at 0.57 percent, highest since May 2011, and the CME Group’s Fed Watch puts odds on a rate increase by April at 42.7 percent today versus 38.8 percent yesterday.

Money is also rushing into Argentina’s bonds this morning as the talks continue to head off a default, although that’s a bit of a fuzzy situation. Simply not paying bondholders is the definition of a default, while ISDA’s determinations committee is the one that rings the bell on a default for those holding the $1 billion or so in insurance contracts for those who are holding those things. Talks went through all day on Tuesday, and Wednesday will be the day of more and more and more talks as people keep watching this situation with interest.

Investors who like playing some single-share volatility got their wish with Twitter earnings yesterday. The stock is up more than 20 percent following those results, a relief for those who saw the Netflix, Apple and Google releases all come out and fizzle in terms of big moves in individual shares.

Ryan Vlastelica pointed out in a story yesterday that it looks like investors are still expecting bigger moves in Expedia, Tesla Motors, 3D Systems and others, just because while harvesting, or selling, volatility is ok in a market as steady and dull as this one, when it comes to high-growth shares with much of their value wrapped up in their future growth, one never knows. Twitter ranks in Starmine’s bottom decile when it comes to its enterprise value-to-sales ratio and other ratios, so it’s a big bet on growth.

MORNING BID – Herbalife and the options market

Jul 28, 2014 15:59 UTC

One of the market’s more well known short bets, Herbalife, reports earnings after the close on Monday. The company is most notable as the target of activist investor Bill Ackman, who has had plenty of choice words for the company and yet has not been able to make good on his short position just yet, despite his fervent belief it is defrauding investors and taking advantage of poor people.

That’s a hefty set of accusations for anyone to deal with, but the stock’s 25 percent one-day surge last week just after Ackman’s presentation turned into a big loser for folks who were betting on big declines by the end of last week.

Ackman, from what we’re aware of, has big positions in put options expiring in January – so it’s a long view he’s taken, and if he took it at the right time, it’s not necessarily a loser just yet. (The options rose in value for the first few months of this year, so it’s possible Ackman got out in time – given his presentations, though, he’s clearly got a position somewhere.)

If that’s the case, he’s currently losing money, and today’s earnings report – and subsequent activity – will be another test of his staying power. Now, he’s said he’s prepared to go to the ends of the earth for this short position, but there are limits to everything, and it’s worth looking at just what the bet is like right now.

There are huge, huge amounts of outstanding contracts in various put options expiring in January – about 220,000 contracts across a swathe of nine different strike prices, to say nothing of a bunch of other less popular strikes.

Most of these big positions are currently not profitable, and are actually worth less than what they’ve been worth over the last several months.

If Ackman did his buying in chunks, a good spot to examine is in the $50 put option contracts expiring in January – a bet the stock will fall below $50 by that time. There was a hell of a lot of volume in these options in January 2014 – on January 9, volume in the $50 strike contracts came to 25,000 contracts and on January 10 volume of 20,759 contracts.

On those days, the stock was trading around $81 a share, so if Ackman is behind these purchases, it means he thought that was an opportune time to buy those puts, which cost $7.25 and $7.45 on average that day, according to Thomson Reuters data.

If he doesn’t hold those options anymore, he may have sold them at a profit, but currently those options are a loser, and as long as the stock keeps rising, they will continue to erode in value.

Doing the math, it shakes out like this – at 25,000 contracts at $7.25 each (x 100 because each contract is 100 shares of stock), those would have cost $18.125 million. The other group would cost $15.465 million, for a total cost of about $33.6 million.

Right now, those options would be worth about $18.9 million, so that’s a 40 percent loss, and that’s just for the $50 strike, never mind all of the other strikes. This of course may not be his position, but whomever took these positions, be it one person or several, is not in a happy place.

What matters is this: Since the first day the $50 strikes expiring in January 2015 started trading (back in Oct 2013), this strike has never been worth less than it is now.

If he’s holding the options now that he bought at just about any time between Oct ’13 and now, he’s losing money. Of course, given these are options, he’s easily able to keep rolling down and buying another money and selling these, but eventually, if the stock doesn’t do what he wants, he’ll be losing a ton of money. He’s got a lot of money, but how much pain can he endure? That’s a real question.

MORNING BID – Waiting on volatility

Jul 24, 2014 12:36 UTC

The day brings another run of earnings reports in what’s overall been a steady and admittedly staid earnings season – many of the high-fliers that investors counted on for volatile trading post-earnings haven’t delivered on that promise, an angle we’ll be exploring in more detail later in the day. Facebook went out with results that weren’t terrible or even all that amazing and shares meandered their way to a 2 percent gain in post-close trading Wednesday (it has since risen and is up 8 percent in premarket action Thursday, so that one has at least panned out for some). Shares of Gilead Sciences bucked the trend among more volatile biotechnology shares and really didn’t do all that much at all.

The big-cap stocks have been similarly unexciting, and the equity market gets a ton of them before and after on Thursday, including heavy equipment giant Caterpillar, the two car companies (Ford and General Motors). There’s also Post-It maker 3M, online retailer Amazon, payment processor Visa – another good consumer spending barometer, and the likes of PulteGroup and DR Horton, a pair of larger homebuilder stocks.

Headed into Wednesday evening’s results, the year-over-year earnings growth was 5.4 percent, or 7.1 percent when removing Citigroup, which had some seriously weird charges this quarter. That still makes things good for a high beat rate of 68.5 percent thus far, and overall companies are surprising by 2.4 percent per Thomson data (again, include Citi, and it’s a -0.2 percent result). So the overall foundation of earnings has generally been strong with few real surprises, helping keep a bit of a lid on volatility in general.

Looking at the names on the docket for today, there are a few that stand out in terms of bettors hoping for wild swings one way or another. Pandora Media looks like a candidate for some volatility, with options types banking on a 9.7 percent move in shares one way or another through Friday, while expectations for Amazon are for a more subdued 6 percent move. That’s relatively quiet for names of that type though Amazon has become something akin to the “old tech” names, with reduced volatility and high share repurchases than anything else.

MORNING BID – The consumer outlook, out of earnings

Jul 23, 2014 12:44 UTC

The next several hours will bring a handful of important consumer names that may give investors some idea of the progress the consumer economy is making. This only works as a barometer to some degree. Sales at S&P 500 companies far outpace the growth of the overall economy, which in part explains why the market itself is doing as well as it is (we’re in the 1980s now on the S&P, so crank up the Def Leppard) and the rest of the economy is lagging behind.

And mass market consumer-facing names like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola disappointed investors with their results on Tuesday, so it will be interesting to see whether others, like Whirlpool – which has tended to buck the general trend – will fare a bit better with their results. (Whirlpool, for its part, cut its outlook amid weak results, but North American sales were up 4 percent excluding currency effects, so score that one on the positive side of the ledger.)

Another consumer name that would lend some credence to the idea that Container Store and Lumber Liquidators put forth – that the U.S. economy remains in a funk – would be Ethan Allen Interiors. The furniture retailer actually comes in as undervalued, per StarMine expectations for growth in the coming decade, and it, too, has managed to steadily increase profit margins.

The company’s valuations compare favorably with those of its competitors: A lower forward price-to-earnings ratio than the likes of Haverty Furniture, Laz-E-Boy, and Leggett & Platt – and while it’s not the biggest of bellwethers (it’s a $659 million company, putting it in the S&P small caps), it has a certain cachet that puts it squarely in the mass market luxury area.

Again, it’s not a perfect barometer, but if it’s doing well along with the cable companies, media names that supply premium content, it points to higher-end retailer outperformance (though nobody has told Harley-Davidson or Michael Kors, both high-end companies that have struggled). If it sinks, it validates the “we’re in a funk” thesis.

The S&P’s global luxury retail index has posted annualized returns of about 25.5 percent in the last five years, outdoing the overall retail index (averaging 25.1 percent annualized in the last five years) and the consumer staples stocks (+16.7 percent).

The auto companies come a day later – Ford and General Motors – but the two U.S. automaking giants are buried under a lot of issues involving recalls, particularly GM.

Notably June auto sales came in at their best levels in about eight years, with GM showing a 1 percent increase in sales while Ford sales were down 5 percent for the month, though still ahead of forecasts.
Either way, the overall level of sales suggested some strength in the second quarter, with the primary questions being how much those companies will be hit by further recall-linked issues.

MORNING BID – The quiet days for Apple

Jul 22, 2014 12:59 UTC

Apple’s been the two-ton behemoth of the stock market for so long that it is going to be surprising, in a way, to see that the company isn’t really pulling its weight anymore when it comes to its percentage of S&P 500 earnings. This sort of thing can be a bit silly, but Howard Silverblatt, the index guru over at S&P Dow Jones, points out that Apple right now is about 3.2 percent of the total market value of the S&P while at the same time accounting for an expected 2.8 percent of earnings in the S&P – the first time since 2008 that Apple hasn’t delivered a percentage of S&P earnings equivalent to its market value.

In the past few years, Apple has tended to carry much of the S&P on its back, such as in the fourth quarter of 2011 and first quarter of 2012, when it accounted for 6 percent and 5.2 percent of the index’s earnings – compared with accounting for about 4.4 percent of the market’s value at that time. In the last quarter of 2012 the stock was 6.3 percent of the market’s earnings and was less than 4 percent of its market value.

Of course you wouldn’t expect that to be the case now – the second and third quarters are the relative dead period when it comes to Apple, given people are generally waiting for the next round of Apple innovations at the end of the year, be it a new phone or what-have-you.

This time through won’t be all that different – with the only real issue being just how solid the growth is for the quarter and whether the stock begins one of its patented run-up-to-the-new-phone rallies that we’ve seen in past years that lasts through the end of the calendar year. Notably, Samsung’s Galaxy S5 came out and face-planted, and that’s either the result of just being a lousy product or competition from China, so it’ll be interesting to see whether upstarts out of China are starting to take share from everybody, or if the Samsung problems auger in general for better things for Apple, as tech editor Eddie Chan points out.

In the last five years, the period beginning July 1 has been the most fruitful for holders of Apple shares, with an average price gain of about 22.5 percent, compared with the relatively unexciting 11 percent gains seen in the first half of the last five years (for Apple, that is, for many companies, 11 percent is fantastic).

The stock has been basically flat since the beginning of this month, but it’s early in the “best six months” period for the iPad giant, so we’ll see where it goes from here. Starmine still puts the stock as undervalued, saying it should trade around $104 a share rather than the $94 where it stands now. The forward P/E ratio of about 13.7 is far short of its 10-year historic mean of about 20.7, and the stock’s price has traded around or below its book value for most of the last four years now. We’ll be looking a bit more as well at the idea that there are fund managers that are shunning shares in a way that they hadn’t in the past – not seeing the kind of value that they feel has been offered in other years, perhaps in part as the expected growth rate for the company slows with all of the additional competition.

MORNING BID – Hewlett-Packard and the declining sales

May 23, 2014 12:58 UTC

Shares of Hewlett-Packard fell late in Thursday’s session after the company inadvertently released results just before the closing bell, but the year hasn’t been so bad for HPQ at least where its stock is concerned – shares are up about 13.6 percent so far in 2014, part of solid performance by a group of stocks Goldman Sachs identifies as “weak balance sheet” companies, the kind of phenomena that occurs when the economy seems to be in recovery and financial conditions are favorable, which they are right now – low rates, high levels of borrowing, reduced covenants in loans and further appetite for risk.

That may change as financial conditions tighten -if Treasury rates start to rise, for instance, or if banks throttle back on lending – but at least HPQ has something going for it right now. The company is cutting 16,000 jobs as it tries to revive its moribund profit margins and reverse what is now 11 straight quarters of sales declines. Companies with weak balance sheets in Goldman’s screen such as HPQ, Time Warner, Norfolk Southern and Delta Airlines generally post lower per-share earnings growth and weak sales growth – often companies in more mature industries or that find themselves left behind one way or another.

So why do those names do well at times like this? Because companies with stronger balance sheets have the ability to adjust more in weaker periods – companies like Salesforce managed to weather the 2008-2009 downturn in a way that tech names during the 2000 bubble did not, because they didn’t have a sustained way to bring in sales the way the cloud software name does.

Improving growth also helps the weaker balance sheet companies like HPQ – though financial conditions, if they tighten, will make the company’s ability to improve margins that much harder. With these job cuts it brings the total job cuts to about 50,000, and as RBC analyst Amit Daryanani said, “you do worry if there’s a finality to this process, or if it’s an ongoing thing that may affect morale at the end of the day. So far the trend has been worrisome.”

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