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A Look Back at 2009 and Outlook for 2010 (AA, GLD, DJIA, SPY)

January 11, 2010 Leave a comment

There has been much to celebrate during 2009 as the stock market ended its’ free-fall and set off on one of the biggest single year gains since the Great Depression. We have seen continued improvements in many economic indicators and their second derivatives such as temporary hires, corporate earnings, initial unemployment claims, and even the more comprehensive measure of U-6 unemployment registered a slight improvement in November. However, the improvements have been very slow coming and I do not anticipate any radical improvements in the near term that would justify additional sudden upside in equity markets.

Despite the improving flow of news, I remain cautious because of many structural issues  carried over from the last few years that remain to be dealt with and because of the significant caveats that apply to much of the good news we have had. For example, the big recent fall in initial unemployment is to be expected at the end of the year because companies usually try to avoid the bad PR of laying off employees going into the holidays. Also, the slight improvement in U-6 unemployment during November is more likely to be a statistical blip than the emergence of a new trend considering that it is still above the reading from September and December’s reading ticked higher as well.

At the end of the fourth quarter, the S&P 500 was sitting at the 50% Fibonacci retracement line from the July 2007 market highs to 2009 lows following more than a 64% move from the March bottom. At 19.9, the  projected 2010 price/earnings ratio of the market is certainly above the historical average of approximately 16 but it is still well within normal ranges during the beginning of a recovery.  Although I do not feel that the market is significantly over-valued at current levels, I see few catalysts for significant additional gains and after pouring over historical data, I believe there is a relatively high likelihood that the market will correct moderately to the downside as the previously mentioned issues play out and the following headwinds begin to manifest themselves:

  • Tepid Employment Outlook
  • Although the initial unemployment claims number has been declining recently, a disturbing trend in the data has been emerging in which continued unemployment has been rising in an almost inversely proportional way. This indicates that a growing number of people have been and are being disconnected from the labor market for almost a year. These people will lose their unemployment benefits soon, depressing their ability to contribute to the economy while also subtracting from the spending power of those people who remain employed because many people are now using discretionary income to support family members and friends who have fallen on hard times.

    To make matters worse, many of the jobs that have not yet come back (such as manufacturing, financial services, automotive, etc.) are not likely to return to pre-crash levels of employment and sectors that are growing such as health care are not hiring as much as they normally would be because of persisting uncertainty regarding regulation in the sector. Also, the longer someone stays out of the labor market, the more their skills become obsolete, diminishing their long term productivity and earnings potential. I’m also beginning to factor in a slight chance of a double dip recession similar to 1937 if the Government and Fed are forced to begin withdrawing stimulus and liquidity before the labor markets can fully stabilize.

  • Withdrawal of Monetary and Fiscal Support
  • A large part of the recent rally has been due to strong fiscal and monetary policies enacted over the past two years that I mentioned previously in my October 20th Buffett vs. Bullion post. However, these will be disappearing relatively soon as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) expires in 2010 and liquidity is withdrawn from the market by the Government and Fed to prevent inflationary pressures from building into another asset bubble. The U.S. Government hasn’t even come close to issuing all of the debt that is required to fund its’ growing deficits but now that a complete financial meltdown is off the table, investors are already demanding higher yields to make purchasing the treasuries worthwhile considering the balance sheet problems facing our country. If yields continue to rise, it will eventually put serious pressure on an already strained credit market and economy.

  • Hobbled Banks and Declining Credit
  • Commercial banks are the backbone of the worlds’ credit markets and they have been badly injured over the past few years by and are still being held together by unprecedented levels of legislative (termination of mark-to-market), monetary (lowering Federal Funds Rate below 0.25%) and fiscal (TARP) support. The banks are still being hobbled by a multi-year build up of toxic “assets” and unprecedentedly high default rates on a wide range of consumer and commercial loans which has significantly curtailed the ability of banks to loan out new funds in the market which would spur further economic growth.

    In recent past recoveries, credit has always continued to expand and the savings rate has continued its’ long term downward trend. However, the most recent recession seems to have fundamentally changed things. The weakened banks can no longer increase the credit they give (in fact, credit has been contracting), and Americans have begun rejecting their debt-loving nature sending the national savings rate average above 4.5% in 2009 for the first time since 1998. The markets rejoiced and rallied on the news that many of our nations’ major banking institutions had returned to profitability. Unfortunately, the opposite reaction could take place when/if investors realize that the return to profitability was heavily aided by taxpayer support and that normalized bank earnings will be lower in the near future because of the previously mentioned reasons and lower levels of lending.

  • Persistent Market Uncertainty
  • Certainty in and of itself is not necessarily a good or bad thing, however a lack of certainty is the breeding ground of volatility in the stock market which tends to reduce realized returns over shorter time frames. There continues to be a great deal of uncertainty concerning the Federal Funds Rate over the next several years and Government intervention in the market as we mentioned in our newsletter from the Third Quarter. There are also other issues which have been temporarily swept under the rug which could come back to haunt during 2010 such as health care reform, regulation of the financial industry, changes to the tax code and taxes on greenhouse gases. I feel that these are important issues which must be tackled comprehensively and in a timely manner. This will almost ikely continue to be a challenge for the current Congress and could become even worse following the 2010 midterm elections. Every day that goes by without there being solid laws on the books is another day that executives will delay hiring or expenditures because of uncertainty over what the business and economic landscapes of the U.S. will look like five years from now.

    For example, (1.) Should healthcare companies hire more people to meet growing demand from regulation that would increase the pool of customers, OR should they fire people because the industry might get regulated to death instead? (2.) Should financial institutions begin putting money back to work in the economy, OR should they be divesting certain assets because of a possible return of Glass-Steagal? The answer barely matters in this case; CEO’s just need to know what the rules of the game will be so they can plan for it. (3.) Should employers like General Electric continue to take advantage of our skilled labor force as well as our great technical and legal infrastructure, OR should they relocate to a more fiscally responsible country for fear of draconian tax rates being employed to sustain Congress’ out of control spending habits? (4.) Should companies continue investing in green and other sustainable technologies to improve our planet, OR should they shut down because they won’t be cost competitive with fossil fuels unless carbon emissions are taxed appropriately?

    Maybe Congress could answer these questions for us when they are done squabbling over who gets the most pork barrel money.

    All this being said, I continue to maintain a positive long term outlook because there are still many exciting areas which I feel offer favorable risk/reward fundamentals and will take advantage of longer term shifts in the global economy. I will continue to revisit my investment thesis regularly throughout the next quarter and I am very interested to hear what executives will have to say about their outlooks on the conference calls during the upcoming earnings season which Alcoa (AA) just kicked off.

    We have just emerged from one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression and I use this comparison because of the great similarities between then and now. The Great Depression began in 1929 when the market fell steeply following years of greed and financial excess (sound familiar?). Market sentiment quickly recovered and stocks experienced one of their greatest runs in history over the next several months as investors covered short positions and began to anticipate a strong recovery (sound familiar?). The rally took the market all the way to the half-way back point (right about where we are now) but investors began taking profits as they waited for the projected fundamental economic improvements to materialize and the market proceeded to dive, not truly bottoming until almost four years later in 1933.

    Mark Twain once said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” and with this in mind I plan on returning to a more defensive posture than I was in the beginning months of 2009 when prices as well as expectations were much lower.

    Words of Wisdom for 2010
    Look at market fluctuations as your friend rather than your enemy; profit from folly rather than participate in it.”
    – Warren E. Buffett

    “The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities — that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future — will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.”
    – Warren E. Buffett

    Happy 2010 everyone!

    -MJB

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    Reviewing Our 2009 Trades (AAPL, RIMM, GS, JPM, MS, SHAW, BNI, BAGL, PALM, GRMN, VXX, SH)

    January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

    During the year Michael and I issue various opinions about stocks that we feel strongly about. We do this whether we have purchased/sold them in our personal accounts, or just because we feel strongly about the direction a stock will take but aren’t in a position to capitalize.  We have been writing this blog for a several months now and feel it would be instructive to analyze our picks and determine what worked and what didn’t, and provide our current insight on those stocks.  Current market prices will be taken from the close of market today, January 7th, 2010.

    Some That Went Well:
    B SHAW @ 28.20: I bought the Shaw Group (SHAW) on October 16, a day where they got hit hard by a number of events. Shaw just announced earnings which beat expectations, taking their stock to $32.36, for a return of about 16% in 3 months.  I saw them then, just as I do now, as an undervalued and under-appreciated infrastructure play with a nuclear energy kicker.

    B BNI @ 79.20: I bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI) on October 1.  I was looking at a cyclical play as the economy recovered, I figured that rail was going to see a huge rebound as the economy recovered.  What would be the chief driver of this? The efficiency of rail, as energy prices rise (another bet I am taking), rail will become more and more attractive relative to other methods of over-land material shipping.  Towards the end of last year, Warren Buffet announced that he was buying the rest of the BNI shares he didn’t already own for $100/share, and the stock rose to that level generating a return of 26% in 2 months.  I eventually sold that position instead of receiving the equivalent in BRK.B shares.

    S PALM @ 17.40: I nailed this one.  I didn’t own the stock, so I couldn’t sell it, but had investors heeded my warning they would have saved themselves from 34% of downside given the current price of $11.45.  I wrote this as PALM was riding high on the prospects for the Pre smartphone, but I saw the dark clouds on the horizons.  With Google releasing their Nexis One yesterday, if puts another nail in the coffin of Palm’s WebOS, as the ability for manufacturers to customize Android, and the immense Apple App store, give massive advantages over Palm’s new system.

    S GRMN @ 37.63: This is another one that I didn’t own and so couldn’t sell, but the stock is now 17% below the price at which I recommended selling.  Again, this is smartphone related as GRMN released their Nuvi to much hype, but little substance.  GRMN is losing marketshare to smartphone applications like on the iPhone, Motorola Droid and Google Nexis One, and this is a trend that will continue.  The Nuvi was supposed to help, but it was a confused hybrid between stand-alone GPS and a smartphone that made a mess of both functions.  Investors will do well to continue to stay clear.

    B RIMM @ 56.60: Mike nailed this price for RIMM.  He used discounted cash flows analysis to determine that it was severely undervalued, and that turned out to be the case.  RIMM is currently trading at approximately $65, for an upside of about 16% in the 2 months since his article was published.  RIMM is the biggest player in the smartphone market, and their strength will likely continue as they release new products that are competitive with the other market leaders.

    S RIMM @ 83.60: Again, Mike nailed this one.  With a current price of $65, Mike saved himself and any readers who heeded his warning from 28% of downside over the course of 3 months.  His hypothesis was that expectations for performance had outstripped actual results, and that was the case as RIMM reported earnings that disappointed.

    There was also Mike’s December 17th post, on Meredith Whitney’s calls on Goldman Sachs & Co. (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), and JP Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) where he proposed that it would likely be profitable to ignore her calling considering that the stocks had already fallen quite a bit and that even with her lower earnings estimates, they still represented great values at their prices at the time. Mike has so far been proved correct, and all three are up by 10%, 13% and 11% respectively in the two weeks since his post.  All returns are more than doubling the 4% gain of the S&P 500.

    And Some That Did Not Go So Well:
    B VXX @ 48.30: The problem was not the argument, but the vehicle chosen to execute that argument.  VXX is an ETF that is designed to follow the short-term VIX futures contract price.  The problem is, it doesn’t.  Since my article was posted, this ETF is down 37%.  Luckily I got out pretty quickly (at $45.96), but in retrospect this was a horrible idea.

    S AAPL @ 189.59-190.00: Our hypothesis on this article (which incidentally got us a note from Apple’s lawyers…check out the original post) was that AAPL had fully priced in any future good news, and was excluding the possibility of poor performance.  A week after our original article, Apple released record earnings, and the stock shot up to above $200.  It has shown volatility since then, but now stands at $210 for a missed upside of about 10%.  We stand by our convictions, but with the utmost respect for AAPL’s continued performance.

    B RIMM @ 70.07 and 67.20: After RIMM missed earnings on September 25, the stock dropped by 15% in a day.  I bought that dip, and Mike bought a few days later.  I underestimated the investor disappointment concerning earnings, and bought way too early.  The fallout from earnings hadn’t happened yet, and the stock would eventually settle in the mid $50s before recovering.  At its current price of $65, the decline isn’t so painful but it definitely hurt for a while.

    B BAGL @ 10.12: Mike found this one while searching through relatively unwatched industries for low-beta stocks that were severely undervalued on a cash flow basis to their peers. It is currently down only 4% but this is following a more than 11% gain off of where it fell in the mid-8’s. Einstein Noah Restaurant Group continues to trade at less than half a years revenue even though the company is still growing. Mike still feels it offers a very compelling value especially compared to it’s peers, however, he recognizes that it was probably a mistake to dive in until there was a potential catalyst to drive the stock higher considering that they don’t even pay a dividend.

    I hope readers find this constructive.  I find it is helpful to go back and learn from both your mistakes and successes.  In general, I feel that we have done quite well in picking stocks on both sides of the trade.

    -AH

    Disclosure: Andrew is long RIMM and SHAW.  Michael is long BAGL, BAC and net long the market although currently building a position in SH.

    Short Term Trouble, Long Term Gift? (SPY, SSO, SDS, SH, /ES)

    October 30, 2009 4 comments

    Sorry about the lack of recent posts, I’ve been pretty focused on the markets lately.

    Last week the bears broke some technical setups where the bulls had a big upper hand. I started to sell positions at that point and increased my selling this week as the charts got uglier. Thursday was absolutely short covering. Looking at the up/down volume and advance/decline ratio’s from Wednesday to Friday, you can see an almost symmetrical reversal that means the market was overwhelmingly short, covered and put the shorts back on. This current short setup has a target of $1023.90 on the /ES (E-Mini S&P500 Futures). Let’s take a look at some charts:

    KillZoneLong

    You can see here that we bounced off of our long term downtrend line and today we closed below our nearer term support uptrend. I’d like to hope that if we close above it things will be fine but I think that is unrealistic. It’s hard to imagine why the market should be much higher than 1200 considering the long term structural issues that the U.S. is still facing. Even if the dollar continues to fall, we are net importers; so while international corporations may get revenues in stronger currencies, they still have to pay to much for input costs. a weaker dollar would be nice if we were still a manufacturing based economy but we aren’t. Next Chart.

    HeadShoulders

    You can see on this chart that the most recent surge took place on higher volume. However, the volume faded on the way up and picked up steam on the way down which is not a good sign if you’re a fan of Dow Theory. The good news is we have a long term inverted head and shoulder pattern (I admit I have seen better ones) which could give us support around $970.

    SupportShort

    I normally wouldn’t have given much weight to the H&S pattern (green line of support) but it also coincides with what should be a strong 50% fib retracement at 985. It is also an area where the shorts will be taking profits at their targets.

    I will be in a conservative bear mode (and short through SH or SDS if the market somehow manages to rally back above 1065) until we get down below 990 where I will begin going long again. I will also consider a small long position through SSO around 1018-1020 where there is another decent long set-up.

    Get your shopping lists ready everyone!

    -MJB

    Playing With Fire – UltraShort S&P 500 (SDS, SH, SKF, QID, INTC, JPM)

    October 14, 2009 Leave a comment

    “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” – John Maynard Keynes

    I bought SDS before the close yesterday (10/13) after looking at one of my more reliable long term technical indicators which predicted a fairly serious iminent fall in the market. Combined with the fact that Intel (INTC) and J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) were reporting after the close and in the morning made me want to get some protection.

    Their earnings not only had high expectations, but they are also bellwether of their industry and of the overall market. Had anything not gone off perfectly in their reports, the results would most likely have been bad with a run down to at least 1030 on the S&P. I also felt that Dow 10,000 could pose strong psychological resistance in the market

    That being said, I heeded the wisdom of Mr. Keynes and covered the position early in the morning after anticipating a half gap fill. In the end I only lost 1.7% (including trading fees) on a trade that could have returned at least 5% easily. I also put on additional long positions which I will get into later.

    -MJB