Friday, October 14, 2016

Bank Earnings Blowout (Reprise)

JP Morgan, Citi and the tarnished Wells Fargo all reported third quarter earnings this morning. The press was ecstatic. CNBC's original headline "J P Morgan Crushes Expectations", was quickly revised to read "JP Morgan Profit and Revenue Easily Tops Forecasts". At Business Insider, the headline was even more bold: "JP Morgan Smashed it out of the Park". The headline for Citigroup's release at CNBC was "Citigroup Tops Wall Street Expectations for Earnings and Revenue".  

But none of these titles accurately captures what is going on with bank top line revenue or profits. Reading past the headline, here's what we actually learn. JP Morgan saw its earnings decline by 7.5% year over year and its top line revenue climb back to just above where it was in the third quarter of 2014, two years earlier. And this is the report from the nation's top performing bank. The news at Citibank was no better, with top line revenue falling 4.8 % year over year and profits falling by 5.3%. 

These results confirm a trend of now greater than four years of declining bank revenue and earnings, as previously reported here for 2016 Q2. The major US banks are effectively shrinking, based upon poor top line revenue growth and profitability.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Trump Campaign Struggles with the Real America

Poor, poor Trump. As successful as he may have been in the business world, he’s clearly out of his league when it comes to Washington. Try as he might, he’ll never be as polished, his record never as scrubbed, his views never as focus-group tested as it takes to win a major election. He’ll fail to cut the back room deals that build support within his own party, fail to carefully cultivate the media that so expertly shapes public opinion, nor will he promise the favors of access sought by powerful special interest donors. 
His campaign will struggle with finances, raising only $94 million by July 1, 2016, versus the $386 million raised by his Democratic opponent. A pathetic $5 million of his funding will come from Super-PACs, compared with the $121 million raised by Hillary Clinton. He won’t get the $1 million donations given each by JP Morgan, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to Clinton, nor the $1.2 million given by the taxpayer-funded institution, the University of California (note, Obama’s former head of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, is now the President of UC). His paltry $2,000 in funding from the hedge fund industry will be dwarfed by the $25 million received by Ms. Clinton’s campaign. He’ll lack the two-faced, deceptive, partisan skills of successful members of the US Congress, a body that now enjoys an approval rating by the American people of just 11%.
In the end, he’ll likely be returned by the electorate to his role as real estate developer, never to amass the 400% gain in personal wealth of Barack Obama during his tenure in the White House, nor the $111 million fortune built by the Clintons through their public service. Washington will go on as it has, an ever escalating arms race of special interest donations, with never a serious effort at campaign reform. We’ll fail to meaningfully attack the federal deficit, perhaps allowing the US national debt to double once again, as it has over the past eight years. We’ll fail to fix social security, disability insurance and medicare, leaving a ticking time bomb at the doorstep of an aging population. We’ll continue to shift the ever-increasing burden of health care costs to middle and upper-middle income consumers, compromising the quality of their health care while devastating disposable incomes. We’ll become even more polarized in our wealth as a society, as we have undeniably become over the past eight years. All the while, Congress’ day to day activities will stall in senseless, immature partisan bickering to form, what President Obama so aptly characterized in 2014 as, “the least productive Congress in modern history.” And, we the American people will be left wondering, is this really all we can expect from government?
No one can defend Trump. All the same, it would be interesting to see someone who thumbs their nose at both the Republican and Democratic parties stumble their way into the White House. Paul Ryan would suffer irritable bowel syndrome for four years. But here's the real concern: a binary political system we Americans have somehow come to accept. If it it's not this, then it's that. If you're not a liberal, then you're a tee-bagger. If you oppose illegal immigration, then you're a racist (by the way, notice the word "illegal" in that sentence). We demonize the opposition. And it's all designed to foster the interests of the two parities who only fein attention to what benefits our country when focus groups show voter support. Once that nonsense is out of the way, the politicians can return to the actual business of government, addressing the concerns of special interests and Super-PACs. Sorry Mr. Trump, but we live in a post-democratic technocracy, where the parties only exist to perpetuate their incumbency.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Understanding Dividend Yields

The search for high dividend yielding stocks continues as investors seek alternatives to the abysmal yields on fixed income securities. A stock yielding 3% in the context of a US Treasury 10-year yield of 1.55%, definitely looks attractive. Well, maybe.

Dividend yield is the projected annual dividend per share of a particular stock, divided by the price. So if General Motors, for instance, is paying an annual dividend of $1.52 per share and the stock is trading at $32, the dividend yield is 4.75%. Far better than the 10 year Treasury.

But there are three important points to remember for those investors buying high dividend yielding stocks. The first consideration is that dividends are declared each quarter by the board of directors and, therefore, can be cut or suspended at any time. We've all seen this happen to stocks like Conocophillips (COP) that announce a dividend cut earlier this year. After entering 2016 with a dividend rate of $0.95, the company cut its dividend in Q2 to $0.79, and in Q3 to $0.49.  The stock now trades at $41, fully 25% off its recent November 2015 high of $55.  Meanwhile, other large integrated oils, not cutting their dividends, have risen considerably over this period.

Second, the dividend yield is an annual number. In other words, if you purchase the stock, hold it for a year and the dividend rate does not change you earn a dividend yield, in the case of GM, above, of 4.75%. Now, of course, what is important to investors is not the annual dividend yield, but rather the total return in holding the stock. For instance, taking this same example, if you buy GM today at $32 and it closes one year from today at $30.5, just one and one-half point lower, your total return for the year is exactly zero - quite a bit less than the yield on that US Treasury.

These two considerations are fairly obvious, but there is one more point for dividend investors that's often overlooked. The dividend yield when you purchase a stock is only the projected yield you are to receive (assuming no cut to the dividend rate) at the price at which you acquire the stock. In the example above, the dividend yield for GM purchased at a share price of $32 today is projected to be 4.75%. 

But what happens to your yield over time, is of equal importance. Let's say that you find GM an attractive investment at the prices and yields mentioned. Now, let's say that you hold GM for a year and the price rises to $35. Well, you've done quite well on the investment. Your total return for the year would be $14.12% (9.375% in price, plus a 4.75% dividend). But at this point, assuming no increase in dividend rate, your projected dividend yield has fallen to 4.34%. Still a very impressive yield. But for stocks that have risen appreciably, the current estimated dividend yield may be far less than when the investor purchased the stock. As such, investors should periodically reconsider why they are holding the stock and its estimated dividend yield on capital currently deployed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Is a Fed Rate Hike Good for Bank Stocks?

With talk of a Fed rate hike at its September meeting increasing, following comments of Stanley Fischer and other Fed governors at Jackson Hole, bank stocks are enjoying quite a run. Bank of America is currently trading at $16.14, a nearly 45% gain from its February 2016 lows.  Citigroup is up 38% and JP Morgan +28.5% (a nice game for Mr. Dimon who publicly purchased $26 million of its shares on February 12). The financial services ETF, "XLF" is up an impressive 27.5%.

Some of this gain was a bounce off the February lows, but a healthy share of the return has been produced over the past 30 days as focus turned toward the Fed's Jackson Hole Symposium. Rightly or wrongly, the market thoroughly believes that higher rates are good for banks, as long-suffering bank net interest margins profit by a higher interest rate lending environment.

Truth be known, a hike in the Fed funds rate, in and of itself, is negative for bank earnings. Such a rise in short term rates has to be accompanied by a far larger increase in term lending rates to produce net interest income benefit to the banks. Part of this disconnect has to do with the mystery surrounding the Fed. Despite the Fed's noble efforts at transparency, market participants remain convinced that the Fed has secret data insights, not otherwise available to the markets at large. If the Fed is moving on rates, the economy must be heating up and with it the UST 10-year, or so the thinking goes.

Of course, the Fed is not privy to some covert set of data, but rather is looking at the same economic data as everyone else. In fact, their prolonged hesitation over the most minor of (and nearly insignificant) rate increases should be ample evidence that the data on the economy is more confusing than it is compelling. Nonetheless, as the chatter rises, bank stocks head higher while utility stocks, bonds and gold - each of which thrive in a low interest rate environment - drift lower.

This being said, it's probably worth taking a look at how markets actually reacted in the days and weeks following the Fed's 25 basis point rate hike last December.  As discussed in a previous post, in the several weeks following the Fed's December 15, 2015 rate hike, the 10-year UST actually fell in yield (bad for bank earnings, by the way) while utility stocks and gold posted some of their best gains in recent memory. 

The XLF shows a similar phenomena, rising to a close of $24.44 on the day following the Fed decision, up nearly 32% from its August 2015 lows. But in the days that followed, the XLF quickly began to fade, falling nearly 5% the very next day. By the time of the February 2016 lows, the XLF had fallen nearly 20%. Eerily, the XLF today, as we approach the September Fed meeting stands at precisely the same level, $24.56, as it did on the day prior to the December Fed meeting. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Fed, Bonds, REITs and Utility Stocks

The Fed is hosting its 2016 annual academic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming this weekend.  Fed Chair, Janet Yellen is scheduled to speak. While no interest rate decision will be announced, markets nonetheless are fixated on developments. With little real economic data or interest to move stock and bond prices, traders eagerly await some insight into future rate policy, in hopes of gaining some direction for markets.

We see the impact of Jackson Hole on bond and utility stock prices, and prices for REITs.  Each of these instruments trade as fixed income securities and are, therefore, rightly influenced by trends in interest rates. But, it's actually long term interest rates that impact these instruments over time, not the short end of the curve that the Fed sets.

Utility stocks have performed extraordinarily well over the past six months, as we first pointed out in this blog in April 2016, Investing in Utility Stocks.  Utility stocks as measured by the return on the ETF, XLU, were up 18.8% through August 10 of this year (see Returns on Selected Assets Year to Date).  It's also worth reading our 2016 market predications posted on December 30, 2015 and What's Working in this Market Correction from January 7, 2016.

Over the past few weeks, though, bonds, REITs and utility stocks have given back some of their gains as investors eye a potential rate hike by the Fed.  Let's take a look at how bonds are priced and why I treat utility stocks as the equivalent. Utility stocks generally trade with a high level of dividend yield. Because utility revenues are quite stable, the dividend is therefore predictable and protected, as much as possible, from swings in the economy.  Therefore, as with bonds that pay a fixed level of interest, the value of the utility stock is tied to the discounted future value of the dividend stream. If the dividend is stable, the stock value will rise as the discount rate falls and decline as the discount rate rises.

Markets, of course, are forward looking, which explains why utility stocks are weakening, while no interest hike has actually been scheduled. The Fed also does not directly impact longer term interest rates that are the basis by which utility dividend and bond interest would be discounted. Nonetheless, the markets are fragile and investors anxious.  

If we look at the last Fed hike on December 15, 2015, however, we see a very different picture emerge. The US 10-year rose by 2 basis points to 2.30% in the day following the announcement, eventually rising to a high of 2.32% on December 29.  But the yield began immediate falling thereafter, to 2.00% on January 28, and 1.63% by February 11, 2016. The 10-year yield now sits at 1.55%. The XLU utility ETF, by the way closed on the day of the December Fed hike at 42.33, climbing to 53 on July 6, 2016 (a gain of 25%).

This points to the most interesting aspect of how bonds and utility stocks trade, not on forecasted Federal Funds rates, or perhaps even the US 10-year, but on the forecast of inflation in the economy, as inflation erodes the value of fixed income securities. The point of all this is that if a Fed hike acts to curb growth (and therefore inflation) a rise in the Fed Funds rate could actually act to lower the US-10 year and raise, not lower, the price of bonds and utility stocks. This is precisely what happened following the Fed's December rate hike. There's no reason to believe that this would play out any differently in the months following the next rate increase.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Wall of Worry

We've all heard this expression, to refer to stocks clawing gains to new highs amidst a market of doubters. It's contrarian logic. Buy when others are selling, when skies are at their most foreboding.

Recent reports have highlighted significant equity mutual fund and ETF outflows of both domestic and international equities, suggesting at least retail investors may be worried indeed. An article in Barron's indicates that fund outflows from U. S. equities in July deepened to a six-year low. International stocks followed suit. ISI Evercore Research reports that fund flows out of equity mutual fund and ETFs last week alone totalled $6 billion, bringing the year to date fund flows to negative $95 billion, a near record.

Now, to those of the contrarian view, the data argues for bullishness with the market soon to drive ever higher. Well, maybe. While markets have been known to climb a wall of worry, just as often investor uneasiness plays out as expected in future events. The herd isn't always wrong.

Take a look at the chart above. It shows the historical pattern of U.S. domestic equity fund flows paired with the S&P 500. While retail investors were seemingly caught off guard in the 2001 tech wreck, only to pull money from equity funds as the market fell to new lows, the stock market crash of 2008 paints a very different picture. While markets pushed ever higher throughout the fall of 2007, equities began to see negative fund flows as early as April, with money being pulled out of the market in increasing volume throughout the year, before the market began to topple in early 2008.

Today's negative fund flows from US domestic and international equities could be just the contrary signal that bulls are looking for, or this time, the herd could simply be right.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Warning Signs in Consumer Product Company Revenues

President Obama recently spoke about the economy, pushing back against nagging naysayers who point to disappointing growth, arguing that his detractors are attempting to make the US recovery look less robust than it really is. He pointed to job growth, a falling unemployment rate, rising wages and, did I mention job growth? Truth is, President Obama shouldn't take it so personally. An $18 trillion economy is more that the doing of one man.

On closer examination, though, there's no denying that something is downright fishy about the economy. Corporate profits for the S&P 500 have now declined for five straight quarters. More disturbing, and to our point about economic growth, top line revenues of S&P 500 companies have fallen for the past six.

It's not just struggling energy companies, or retailers shouldering these declines, both of whom it could be argued are not representative of the broader economy. In the former case, bulls would point to the nearly unprecedented fall in the price of oil, in the latter the shift to online shopping. But truth be told, the poor sales and earnings of major retailers like Macy's, Nordstrom, Walmart, Kohls, Ralph Lauren and Apple all take into account their online sales. So it's not just a shift to online shopping. There is something wrong with the consumer.

The issue is manifest in top line revenue of major banks like Citibank, JPMorgan and Bank of America. While their customer base is as corporate and institutional as consumer, top line revenues for each of these banks has fallen sequentially for the past five years. The banks are in effect shrinking themselves through expenditure reductions to keep cash flow positive.

But it's the consumer brands, like Colgate that are the most disturbing and highlight the structural weakness in the economy. Net sales for Colgate's products fell 7% last year - now bear in mind this is a company that makes consumer staples like toothpaste, mouthwash, soap, deodorant and household cleaners. Assuming for a moment that inflation is zero (if you buy that argument) the world's population is unquestionably growing. How can a company that markets consumer staples see shrinking sales in a growing world? And it's not that Colgate is somehow falling behind its competitors. After all, the stock trades at 47x trailing earnings and is at the top end of its 52-week trading range. Clearly, investors value the franchise.

As dreary as this picture might be, Colgate is not doing nearly as badly as America's largest consumer products company, Procter & Gamble. P&G has seen declining annual revenues, sequentially, for each of the past five years. Its revenues were fully 20% lower in 2015 than in 2012. P&G saw its sales decline last year alone by $10.9 billion. Pepsico's revenue fell by 5.4% last year, and came in $2.5 billion below its sales level of 2012. General Mills, another leading consumer products company, saw revenue decline last year by 6% vs. 2014. How is this all possible in a healthy economy?

Maybe this is what Bill Gross, Stan Druckenmiller, George Soros, Carl Icahn and other billionaire investors see that scares them so terribly about the economy and the stock market. After all, for revenues of major consumer brands to see continuing sales declines, something has definitely gone off track with the economy.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Earnings Beats Continue to Drive Markets Higher

When it comes to investing, I guess I'm old fashioned. There, I said it. I still dream of owning shares of companies that are growing, building businesses, expanding production, services, facilities and markets. But if you've been trading stocks for less than ten years, this perspective might appear archaic, outdated, downright foolish.

Gina Martin Adams, Equity Strategist for Wells Fargo was on Bloomberg TV yesterday touting renewed bullishness on US equities. Her enthusiasm was driven by the "75% of companies reporting earnings this quarter that exceeded analyst estimates". You can watch the full interview here. Tom Keene, the venerable host, for whom I have great respect, failed to ask the most compelling question: what percentage of companies reported earnings that actually exceeded prior year's results. After all, as old-fashioned as I may be, I still like the idea of owning shares of companies that are growing their businesses, not companies that are failing, but a little less badly than analysts had predicted.

We've discussed this topic elsewhere in this blog, in respect of US banks like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, then in a blog post just after Apple reported a stunning 27% decline in year over year quarterly earnings (the stock popped on the news, by the way). We saw yet more of this silliness yesterday as Polo Ralph Lauren reported a same store sales decline of 9%, with its stock up roughly the same percentage on the day. Today's pop is over at Macy's up 17% as of this writing on news of an earnings beat. Nevermind the fact that revenue declined by $230 million on a year over year basis, that the retail giant is shuttering 100 stores or that the company is forecasting a full year decline in comp sales of 3-4%.

But markets are markets and the market is never wrong, so what's going on here? My guess is that computer algorithms run by investment banks, hedge funds and other institutions are now programed to spot earnings beats, irrespective of overall company performance, and buy shares on the news. A beat is not always sufficient to drive a stock higher, but if it works in 90% of the cases, the odds are quite favorable for an institution trading hundreds of thousands of shares per day.

For the retail investor, however, this poses a great challenge. Do you seek out growing companies with rich stock prices, or beaten down companies hoping they'll fail a little less spectacularly? If you choose the latter, and I'm not arguing you shouldn't, bear in mind the risks of a miss on the stock performance of a downtrodden company as can be seen from market action following Macy's 2015 Q3 results.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Up In Smoke Free Promotion

Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream will be available for free download in its entirety to Kindle users from August 1 through August 5, 2016 by following the link belowUp In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on