Posts Tagged 'Stephen L. Weiss'

Am I Still Bearish? Sort of Not

I have had very light equity exposure for an extended period of time with periods of being net short to being fairly long. Fortunately, with the indices having been range bound, the opportunity cost has been insignificant. As I mentioned in a prior note being bearish is exhausting, lonely and counter to my natural optimism (although I do admit to always maintaining a healthy dose of cynicism). Imagine taking your child to see 101 Dalmatians and loudly rooting for Cruella deVille to come out on top. Your kid shrinks away to another seat on the other side of the theater while others shun you. That’s how bears are treated.

I continually second guess my investment thesis, trying to see what the other side sees. I weigh the inputs underlying my stance, marking them to market. I try to remove the bias of my position as I seek additional data that is either supportive or unsupportive of my position. And of course, there is always the fear of acting from emotion that prompts a change in thinking, a feeling that you weren’t invited to the party, of being left out. And most of all, there is that greatest fear of all, of having reversed course at absolutely the wrong time. And in full disclosure, I have not always made the turn in a very timely fashion. I did well in 2008 but hardly made any money in 2009. Although I was still ahead of the game, it still didn’t feel good missing out on a ripping bull market move.

So where am I now? I am warming up to the market. Why? Well, I have often said I have seen this movie before and it ended badly but maybe there will be a different ending to this installment because everyone else had also seen the prequel to the 2011 financial crisis. My ending has banks struggling to raise capital, some, like Dexia or perhaps Greece, going belly up, credit continuing to tighten, economies contracting – the culmination of all these fears and others I haven’t listed causing a massive wave of selling. But guess what? Merkel and Sarkozy and the more responsible members of the G-20 and EU were also around in 2008 and they have no interest in revisiting that scenario. Granted they have waited too long and the cost of delay has ratcheted up the price of a cure. Germany and France have the most to lose by not putting forth a viable solution. While expectations for a total and complete solution are still high, they have been ratcheted down enough to be attainable, or near attainable with the promise to be completely resolved in the next 3 to 6 months. Shock and awe is not in the cards and everyone knows it. But will they give us enough to put a floor under the market and cause under invested funds to chase performance? I think so.

Swimming upstream, against the tide of bullishness that is the unwavering stance by the vast majority of pundits and market participants is difficult enough but imagine the flood gates being opened and the water gushing at you as you flutter kick your portfolio like a foam kickboard. The world is awash in liquidity. It all comes down to not fighting the Fed. But the much maligned U.S. Fed has recruited a legion of Central Bankers to fight the battle: the EU, IMF and China. This is a massive liquidity push by every printing press on the planet. So for now, I am entering into surrender negotiations and further increasing my exposure further.

I am by no means becoming fully invested for I still have that evil twin whispering in my ear. The global economy is in terrible shape but what do I know that others don’t? I don’t have an edge on China – it’s a property bubble that has already begun to leak – but the Chief Communist (as opposed to Chief Economist) knows that. I think that will end ugly but they can throw enough money at it in the interim to allow the S&P to rise to 1250, a random number, while their market declines. Europe is in recession but that thinking is convention and is nothing that $1.3 trillion can’t cure.

The most alpha will likely be generated through commodities and materials – the most economically sensitive investments – but I can’t go all that way in. There is too much risk in case I am wrong. I do like the fertilizer companies for the long term and although recovering, they have been beaten worse than a Middle Eastern dictator. I still prefer the more boring fundamentally, bottoms up investments epitomized by MDRX, KO, QCOM, WLP, NIHD. My risk is in bottom fishing on HPQ and, dare I admit it, RIMM. I cut back my Euro short against the dollar but will rebuild that position again at some point.

How long the cure lasts is what keeps a lid on my exposure. At some point austerity leads to slower growth and U.S. economic policy is non-existent as Washington remains rudderless. Everyone believes China will bail out every local government, corporate and individual spectators but I don’t. After all, they are communists and not prone to providing handouts to failing billionaires or local governments who have repeatedly disobeyed central government directives. There will be some pain to teach them a lesson.

I won’t be discouraged if there is a sell on the news mentality once the EU deal is announced. And I am rooting for another delay in the announcement because that means they are still arguing – eh, negotiating. And I expect leaks from the negotiations to cause some volatility. We should continue to move higher, perhaps rally 20% before going lower, likely hitting prior lows.

Whoops, there I go again.

Slovenia Could Imperil EU Bailout; Operation Chubby Checker a/k/a Operation Twist; The Recession is here.

Little old Slovenia, that old communist country, could be the fly in the ointment. The government fell last night and elections are not yet scheduled but the party that seems to be in favor of assuming power is apparently less benevolent than the outgoing politicians. Slovenia’s Democratic Party is also much less benevolent than the US Democrats but I guess the word “Democrat” has different definitions in former communist countries than here. They believe that countries like Greece should pay the piper themselves and that it shouldn’t fall on the Slovenians to give up their hard earned cash to profligate spenders. The issue with this is that the approval of the new ESFS proposal requires unanimous approval from all 17 members . If the Democratic Party does assume power, there is no guarantee the Slovenians vote to approve the bailout making for, at least, some suspense. The markets don’t need more uncertainty.

Alpha Natural Resources noted slowing demand in Asia for coal as one reason why they cut guidance today. This is not a good sign. China was supposed to be a bastion of strength. Copper, FCX, at lows, transports getting smeistered, these are the front end of the recession. I’m short CNX and BTU. The rails, who of course benefit from coal shipments, are feeling tremendous pain. CSX had already lowered guidance as did FDX.

In 2002, Bernanke made a speech about Kennedy’s use of Operation Twist and it wasn’t so favorable (link below) Granted the speech referred to Japanese deflation issues but is nonetheless very telling. Quote is from the footnote 11.

“An episode apparently less favorable to the view that the Fed can manipulate Treasury yields was the so-called Operation Twist of the 1960s, during which an attempt was made to raise short-term yields and lower long-term yields simultaneously by selling at the short end and buying at the long end. Academic opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Twist is divided. In any case, this episode was rather small in scale, did not involve explicit announcement of target rates, and occurred when interest rates were not close to zero.”

Like Chubby Checker, the inventor of the only twist that worked, this move will be for entertainment purposes only since it will have less of an affect on the economy than Chubby’s record sales. And it will hurt the banks.

HPQ – sell it. The Board should be fired. You approve such a radical change in direction such as buying an overpriced software company and the spinning off of your PC business and then you fire the CEO. Can you think of a worse nightmare for a CEO than having the stock decline when you are hired then spike when you get fired. Whitman, a brilliant internet pioneer, is not the answer. EBAY is a retailer, HPQ is, well what is it? It’s a declining hardware business. ORCL isn’t buying HPQ. $60 billion is an awful big price tag for a “told you so” by Hurd even if it were his decision which it’s not.

Most troubling about the bank debt downgrades is the reason. It’s crazy logic. Does Moody’s see a need for the government to bail out the banks? If so, their debt won’t be worth anything so the downgrade should be to junk. If the Lehman deja vu isn’t an issue, then there shouldn’t be a downgrade.

Guess what? I’m still bearish.

Netflix (NFLX): A Better Short at $150 than $250.

As the saying goes, stocks can stay irrational longer than an investor can stay solvent. Shorting stocks on valuation is a mug’s game, a fool’s folly. Traders found this out the hard way leading up to the tech bubble in 2000. Valuations were extremely stretched as the circumference of the bubble grew larger and larger. Fundamentally, there was no way for those “high flyers” to grow into their valuations in any reasonable period of time. It was true for AMZN then and every other high flyer including CMGI (remember them) and even CSCO. Eventually all these stock prices came back to earth but unless one was able to pick the exact inflection point when sanity overtook exuberance, it was a very expensive trade. But those who waited to put on a short until the first hiss of air as the bubbles popped, made a fortune on their shorts and never had to take an angry margin call from their broker. Thus the CMGI short was a much better trade at $100 on the way down from $160 than on the way up.

I am not suggesting that NFLX is another bubble company but rather a bubble stock. In fact, it is a good company with very good management but once a stock reaches such ridiculous valuations, where the expectation is for uninterrupted hyper-growth that has never been seen before, the question must then be asked: am I investing in a company or a stock? NFLX long ago morphed into a stock investment, its valuation driven more by momentum than by fundamentals. It faces challenges such as content costs, growing competitive threats, a struggling consumer, new pricing plans which have turned universal love into negative sentiment and new data pricing plans by wireless carriers which should inhibit usage. The post bubble decline in AMZN’s stock price from its peak was a lot swifter than its recovery, all the while the core operations of the company remained on a positive slope. I don’t know how many stayed with AMZN during that downdraft but I would guess relatively few. Waiting for the turn in the stock price, foregoing the initial move, reduced the stress and made the risk/reward profile more attractive.

The NFLX bubble has sprung yet another leak, the hissing of the air escaping growing louder and more frequent. The story is developing more holes than the proverbial piece of Swiss cheese. First, the earnings miss last quarter, then the long tail investment in LatAm and new pricing plans and last week the Titanic-iceberg moment when the stock really took on water as Starz broke off negotiations. Now, here we are with the very core of the business, subscriber growth, not meeting expectations. In short, NFLX is a broken growth stock and it is too soon to start picking the bottom; still too expensive for GARP and Value, and the continuing degradation in fundamentals keeping Growth investors at bay.

Despite the significant decline in its share price, NFLX is a less risky short now than it was at $250 since the fundamentals have clearly reversed. They will continue to lose content as Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes made abundantly clear months ago when he talked about the mismatch in what NFLX pays them for their content versus the value they derive. Like John Malone, Bewkes will draw a hard line in negotiations and is prepared to walk away. I may eventually invest in the company on the long side, but only when it returns to being an investment in a “company” with an attractive valuation. With the valuation still in the stratosphere, we are a long way off from that point. I’ll reassess at par. I would use puts to express the short to guard against some cash rich tech CEO seeking growth through a dilutive acquisition.

Disclosure: Weiss has a put position in NFLX.

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