MORNING BID – I was dreaming when I wrote this…

Aug 25, 2014 14:37 UTC

The move by Roche to buy biotech company Intermune for $8.3 billion at a 38 percent premium isn’t going to make Janet Yellen happy, given her thoughts on the valuation of certain biotechnology and Internet retailing names. Still, with the Fed chair on board for low rates for some time given the slack situation in the labor market that the Fedsters keep talking about (basically, the unemployment rate, like the old grey mare, ain’t what she used to be), the long march to 2,000 on the S&P looks like it’s probably going to be over before long (it’s been done on an intraday basis, and now we’re just waiting on a close above that level), representing a tripling in that average in a bit more than five years and raising again all those questions about whether this all makes sense and if anyone cares anyway.

On the first point, well, nobody knows anything – earnings were generally strong in this most recent quarter, particularly when one expands the universe to the Russell 1000, where Credit Suisse points out more companies that are beating analyst expectations are growing sales, a sign of improved demand.

About 70 percent of the Russell 2000 beat on earnings estimates (about 62-65 percent if you exclude the ones that only beat due to reducing share counts through buybacks), and of that group, 84 percent did so while growing sales, pointing at least to some hope on improved demand. But there’s always weakness out there somewhere, and it appears to be among the true small-caps – the Russell 2000, which has been trailing the S&P and yet still looks overvalued based on a number of measures and has been seeing more negative revisions even as the stocks struggle.

The weakness in those names, along with some lackluster stock performance out of consumer discretionary stocks, explains in part why hedge funds are once again struggling, up less than 1 percent for the year compared with about an 8 percent gain in the S&P 500 for the year (after 2013’s ridiculous rise, of course, when hedge funds wouldn’t have been expected to keep up in the first place).

Still, it’s been a rough outcome this time this year – heavy overconcentration in a lot of the social media names early in the year dampened performance when those stocks went belly-up, and after that heavy exposure to discretionary shares did them in, so just kind of an uphill battle ever since – which actually suggests the desire to catch up may result in more gains for the rest of the market throughout the rest of the year. To wit – Credit Suisse’s most recent data shows health care becoming a net overweight position among hedge funds, with long exposure increasing in the last few months.

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 – ‘You don’t wanna go long into the weekend’

Aug 8, 2014 12:50 UTC

Get ready for one of those days where people say a lot about not wanting to be “long going into the weekend.” Except perhaps in bond markets, where the rush to government debt intensified with President Obama’s remarks that the US is ready to provide air support through airstrikes against ISIS, which now controls a big swath of Syria and Northern Iraq. That’s forced a big move into U.S. and German yields, among other things, which is undermining some of the recent strength in the dollar as well. (That’s not to say it’s a strong-euro move, more of a weak-dollar move, given the declines in the dollar against the yen as well.)

What’s striking here about the rallies in U.S. debt and German debt is that even though there’s a substantial safe-haven bid behind both markets, the difference is the German 2/10 spread has narrowed from about 1.73 percentage points to 1.04 percentage points since the beginning of the year thanks to a big move in the 10-year, a bull “flattening” trade that reflects ongoing concerns about economic growth in Germany, and more broadly, in Europe.

The United States has also seen a flattening as well, and also about 60 basis points, from 2.59 percentage points to 1.97 percentage points. There’s a slight rise in the two-year note embedded in this move, though, and while the 60-basis-point move in the US 2/10 isn’t as big as the 70-bp move in Germany, it’s still significant.

The US yield curve remains relatively steep.

The US yield curve remains relatively steep.

The difference is that the difference of two percentage points is still closer to the historic norm that suggests a stronger economic outlook. Short-dated rates are of course being held back by the Fed and ECB, but that’s becoming less so on the U.S. side of the equation. Either way, the move below 2.40 percent and the big increase in central bank custody holdings ($28 billion this week) supports the idea that there are growing worries, mostly of a global political nature, that are affecting markets right now that’s likely to persist in a vacuum where earnings season is winding down and economic figures have been relatively consistent.

So where might the market go next? Analysts at CRT Capital see the likely strongest performance in the 5-7 year area, in part because next week’s supply of 3s, 10s and 30-year bonds will likely imply a concession in those maturities that will keep a bit of a lid on the strength there.

However, CRT suggests that the 10-year yield would find support at about 2.55 percent (if it ever gets that high again) and likely resistance around 2.35 percent. Watch for the weekly CFTC data late in the day as well – short positions in the 10-year have been steadily worked off (or beaten out of those stubborn enough to keep those positions on) to a point where net shorts were nearly even last week at short 5,800 contracts, smallest since a long position in July 2013. If all of that is worked out that short-covering may finally have run its course.

The stock market is an odder duck right now. Futures are higher, having rebounded from big post-Iraq-worry losses during the night, but it’s hard to imagine any kind of buying power taking the market all that much higher on a Friday and uncertain situations in Ukraine, Israel/Gaza and Iraq/Syria. The total revenue of U.S. companies to most of those areas is very, very small, but at times like this that’s not the calculus investors are using.

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 – The economic state of things

Aug 1, 2014 13:19 UTC

The jobs report takes a bit of heat off of Thursday’s selloff, which was predicated in part on some nonsense out of Europe and more importantly some kind of growing consensus that the economy is getting hot enough that it might force the Federal Reserve to start raising rates a bit earlier than expected, given a sharp and unexpected rise in the employment cost index on Thursday. And while it’s fair to suggest the stock market has gotten a bit ahead of itself when the Fed is rapidly moving toward the end of its stimulus policies, it’s also possible that stocks have gotten ahead of themselves for a far more prosaic reason – the economy isn’t strong enough to support the kind of valuations we’re seeing in equities right now.

That’s not to say we’ve got bubbles all over the place in stocks – they’re pretty few and far between – but credit standards in various places have loosened, and if the Fed starts raising rates we’re going to see a pretty quick reversal of that before long. There are significant signs of concern emerging in places like the high yield market, which has dropped off sharply in recent days, particularly among the weakest credits, and the housing and auto markets, which are better leading indicators than the jobs data, also suggest that the slack credit standards may end up hitting a wall before long.

Jim Kochan at Wells Fargo Fund Management pointed out that with the U-6 unemployment rate picking up to 12.2 percent this month, it conforms to what Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said in the past – that the “report is consistent with Ms. Yellen’s view that it is too early for the Fed to be contemplating a ‘liftoff’ in the fed funds rate.” That’s caused the expectations for a rate hike – per CME Fed Watch – to back off a bit, with April odds now down to 37 percent (from 43 percent a couple days ago) and June down to 52 percent from 58 percent a couple of days ago.

The U-6 rate ticked up as more people entered the workforce.

The U-6 rate ticked up as more people entered the workforce.

As the labor market improves, there are growing concerns about leading economic areas that point to a slackening in activity and will serve as the real test of the economy’s ability to survive as monetary policy recedes from the picture and interest rates start to rise (even with the Fed still at near-zero and expected not to raise rates until April at least, if not thereafter).

The Detroit team of Bernie Woodall, Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert teamed up for a piece that notes how a minority of groups are seeing real concerns about credit standards being loosened to a point that suggests auto sales demand is being driven by too-easy money. People have long talked about how auto loans tended to be on average about five years – matching approximately a value of a car (to a point) and now the average loan has risen to about 66 months, which means there are plenty more people offering terms to seven or eight years.

Cars are made to last longer than years ago, but it still represents an extension of debt payments over a longer period of time that’s worrisome. Car sales figures are due out later today – July auto sales are expected to show a slight dip to a 16.7 million annualized rate from 17 million in June, and full-year forecasts are set to hit their highest rate since since 2006. Similar action can be seen in the housing market as well, where the four-week moving average of the MBA’s purchase index has been steadily declining for several weeks now. That’s probably to some extent a summer effect but that index now sits far below levels seen in mid-2013 when it rose to a four-year peak.

 

That said, again – it’s a bit early to conclude that the leading areas of the economy have given up the ghost and we’re now headed for an inexorable descent into a recession – housing and auto sales fluctuate quite a bit, and even in expansions sharp declines can be seen. The 12-month moving average of U.S. housing starts are still on an uptrend from a year-over-year basis.

On the other hand, the 12-month average of existing home sales has slipped to 4.908 million. Sales of existing homes have had long periods of stagnation amid economic expansions before – they were weak from mid-1994 to mid-1995 and were slack from mid-1987 to mid-1989 as well. The most recent experience in housing – boom-and-bust – seems overstated of yet. So give it a few months.

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.

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