Archive for November, 2009

Friedman Looks to Flatten Problems in Flat World

Perhaps Friedman could use Gallagher's "Sledge-O-Matic?"

Thomas Friedman, author of recent book Hot, Flat, and Crowded and New York Times columnist, combines a multi-discipline framework in analyzing some of the most complex issues facing our country, from both an economic and political perspective. Friedman’s distinctive lens he uses to assimilate the world, coupled with his exceptional ability of breaking down and articulating these thorny challenges into bite-sized stories and analogies, makes him a one-of-a-kind journalist. Whether it’s explaining the history of war through McDonald’s hamburgers, or using the Virgin Guadalupe to explain the rise of China, Friedman brings highbrow issues down to the eye-level of most Americans.

In his seminal book, The World is Flat, Friedman explains how technology has flattened the global economy to a point where U.S. workers are fighting to keep their domestic tax preparation and software engineering jobs, as new emerging middle classes from developing countries, like China and India, steal work.

The Flat World

In boiling down the recent financial crisis, Friedman used Iceland to explain the “flattening” of the globe:

“Fifteen British police departments lost all their money in Icelandic online savings accounts. Like who knew? I knew the world was flat – I didn’t know it was that flat…that Iceland would become a hedge fund with glaciers.”

The left-leaning journalist hasn’t been afraid to bounce over to the “right” when it comes to foreign affairs and certain fiscally conservative issues. For example, he initially full-heartedly supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And on global trade, he has a stronger appreciation of the economic benefits of free trade as compared to traditionally Democratic protectionist views.

Calling All Better Citizens

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, Friedman’s patience with our country’s citizenry has worn thin – he believes government leaders cannot be relied on to solve our problems.

When it comes to the massive deficits and foreign affair issues, Friedman comes to the conclusion we need to cut expenses or raise taxes. By creating a $1 per gallon gasoline tax, Friedman sees a “win-win-win-win” solution. Not only could the country wean itself off foreign oil addiction from authoritarian governments and create scores of new jobs with E.T. (Energy Technologies), the tax could also raise money to reduce our fiscal deficit, and pay for expanded healthcare coverage.

It’s fairly clear to me that government can’t show the leadership in cutting expenses.  Since cutting benefits for voters won’t get you re-elected, taxes most certainly will have to go up. Wishful thinking that a recovering economy will do the dirty, debt-cutting work is probably naïve.  If forced to pick a poison, the gas tax is Friedman’s choice.  I’m not so sure the energy lobby would feel the same?

Political gridlock has always been an obstacle for getting things done in Washington. Technology, scientific polling, 24/7 news cycles, and deep-pocketed lobbyists are only making it tougher for our country to deal with our difficult challenges. Regardless of whether Friedman’s gasoline tax is the silver bullet, I welcome the clear, passionate voice from somebody that understands the challenges of living in a flat world.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) owns certain exchange traded funds (BKF, FXI) and has a short position in MCD at the time this article was originally posted. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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November 30, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Turkey Day Tidbits

Well, I have managed to pull away from my turkey, mash potatoes, and pumpkin pie to scribble down some Cliff Clavin-like trivia as it relates to Thanksgiving.

Did you know?

  • Origin of Thanksgiving: The genesis of Thanksgiving dates back to the fall of 1621 when only half of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower survived. The survivors were thankful to be alive and therefore decided to have a thanksgiving feast. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving before Franklin Roosevelt (in office from 1933-1945) changed it to the fourth Thursday of the month to encourage holiday shopping (in case there was a fifth Thursday). As you can see, our infatuation with consumer spending existed all the way back to the first half of last century.
  • Turkey Chasing Trivia: For a plump delicious item consumed with gravy from my plate at a leisurely pace, I was surprised to discover wild turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour and burst into flight speeds of approximately 50-55 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. Glad my fork and knife can contain this fast fowl from escaping its destiny into my belly.
  • Turkey Eating Trivia: The number of turkeys raised in the U.S. is estimated at 250 million in 2009, down about 8% from the $4.5 billion and 7.9 billion pounds produced in 2008. Minnesota, the “Gopher State,” is expected to be the top turkey producing state, registering in at 45.5 million gobblers. The annual turkey consumption of an American averaged 13.8 pounds in 2007 – with a healthy portion of that consumed during the Thanksgiving holiday period.
  • Other Fixins: You can’t have Thanksgiving turkey without cranberries, which explains the 709 million pounds of production expected in 2009 (more than half coming from Wisconsin). Cranberries are considered one of three native fruits to North America (the others are Concord grapes and blueberries).  There were about 3 billion pounds of sweet potatoes and pumpkins produced in 2008 (North Carolina and Illinois were the leading producers, respectively.).
  • Wishbone History: Back in the days of the Etruscans (about 1200 BC–550 BC), chickens were used for fortune-telling and the dried wishbones of the dead fowl were stroked for good luck. The tradition evolved through Roman times and the wishbone practice was modified to include the breaking of the bone. Eventually the custom made it to England, and the English took it to the New World.
  • Holiday Football: Ever since the league was created, the National Football League (NFL) has played games on Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1934, with the exception of World War II (1939–1944).

More than all the trivia, I enjoy this holiday as a time for contemplation. The daily rat race hits us all to some degree and can distort our views of reality. On days like today, it’s nice to suppress the craziness (albeit temporarily) to reflect on those issues important to us, thereby reshaping our lives back into proper perspective.

And oh yeah, squeezing in some football on the boob-tube and stuffing my face with pie and ice cream makes it all the more enjoyable.

A happy and healthy Thanksgiving to all,

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 26, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Turkey Stuffing, Wall Street Style

There will be no shortage of turkey stuffing this year, thanks to a story from Joshua Brown’s The Reformed Broker site (Wall Street Turkeys…Full of Stuffing).

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, which turkeys did journalist Terry Keenan roast?

Timothy Geithner: A fledgling economy and aggressive fiscal measures have painted a big target on Geithner’s back. I don’t fall into the “let’s lynch Geithner” camp, but Keenan feels “It’s a fair bet President Obama’s least-popular appointed official won’t be around to roast next Thanksgiving. “

John Thain: The former Merrill Lynch CEO and Bank of America executive who spent $1.2 million redecorating his Manhattan office made the list too. The man referred to as “I-Robot” may be difficult to cook, but regardless the article claims he is seeking to find employment running a different public company in the mean time.

Larry Summers: As the Director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, Mr. Summers has done a respectable job of flying below the radar, but not low enough to escape his past as Harvard University’s President (and the associate poor performing endowment).

Jeffrey Immelt: GE is no weakling, weighing in around $170 billion in market cap, but Keenan highlights the fledgling performance of NBC over the last two decades as reason to stuff this turkey.

Vikrim Pandit: The CEO of Citigroup survived a tumultuous period in 2009. Keenan however underscores how:

“His image suffered a big blow at the hands of Andrew Ross Sorkin, who paints an unflattering portrait of Pandit in his best-selling book, Too Big to Fail. If Pandit can’t play the “source game” to his advantage, it’s hard to see how he’s up to the much tougher task of reviving Citi’s fortunes.”

Now that we’re done with the turkey, could you please pass the stuffing.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including VFH), but currently have no direct positions in BAC, GE, or C. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 25, 2009 at 2:08 am Leave a comment

Equities Up, But Investors Queasy

The market may have recovered partially from its illness over the last two years, but investors are still queasy when it comes to equities. The market is up by more than +60% since the March 2009 lows despite the unemployment rate continuing to tick higher, reaching 10.2% in October. Even though equity markets have rebounded, recovering investors have flocked to the drug store with their prescriptions for bonds. Mark Dodson, CFA, from Hays Advisory published a telling chart that highlights the extreme aversion savers have shown towards stocks.

Source: Hays Advisory LLC (Thomson Reuters Datastream)

Dodson adds:

“Net new fund mutual fund flows favor bonds over stocks dramatically, so much so that flows are on the cusp of breaking into record territory, with the previous record occurring back in the doldrums of the 2002 bear market. Given nothing but the chart (above), we would never in a million years guess that the stock market has rallied 50-60% off the March lows. It looks more like what you would see right in the throes of a nasty stock market decline.”

 

Checking and savings data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis further corroborates the mood of the general public as the nausea of the last two years has yet to wear off. The mountains of cash on the sidelines have the potential of fueling further gains under the right conditions (see also Dry Powder Piled High story).

As Dodson notes in the Hays Advisory note, not everything is doom and gloom when it comes to stocks. For one, insider purchases according to the Emergent Financial Gambill Ratio is the highest since the recent bear market came to a halt. This trend is important, because as Peter Lynch emphasizes, “There are many reasons insiders sell shares but only one reason they buy, they feel the price is going up.”

What’s more, the yield curve is the steepest it has been in the last 25 years. This opposing signal should provide comfort to those blue investors that cried through inverted yield curves (T-Bill yields higher than 10-Year Notes) that preceded the recessions of 2000 and 2008.

Equity investors are still feeling ill, but time will tell if a dose of bond selling and a prescription for “cash-into-stocks” will make the queasy patient feel better?

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 24, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Meredith Whitney’s Cloudy Crystal Ball

Meredith Whitney, prominent banking analyst at her self-named advisory group, should have worn a bib to protect her from the adoring drool supplied by Maria Bartiromo in a recent CNBC interview. Ms. Whitney has quickly become a banking rock star during this “Great Recession” period.  She was right at a critical juncture, and as a result she was thrust into the limelight. Much like Abby Joseph Cohen, the perma-bull Goldman Sachs strategist who gained notoriety in the late 1990s, Whitney (the perma-banking bear) will continue having difficulty living up to the lofty expectations demanded of her.

Despite the accolades, Whitney’s crystal ball has gotten cloudy in 2009. I suppose accuracy is not very important, judging by her bottom-half 2007 ranking (year of her major Citigroup call) in recommendation performance and 48%-ile ranking in the first half of 2008. Analysts, much like reporters, can avoid looking dumb by reporting the news du jour and by following the herd. Whitney has followed this formula with her continuous bearishness on the financial sector, excluding a brief but late upgrade of Goldman Sachs in July. Not only was her analysis tardy (Goldman’s stock tripled from the 2009 bottom), but her call has also underperformed the S&P 500 index since the upgrade.

Incoherent Inconsistencies

Like a bobbing and weaving wrestler (her husband John Layfield is a retired staged professional wrestler from the WWE), Whitney tries to concoct a completely mind-boggling narrative to explain her forecasts this year in the CNBC interview with Maria Bartiromo:

11/18/09 (XLF Price $14.60): “For the year, I have been at least ‘cover your shorts, go long.’ I haven’t been this bearish in a year.” (See Maria Bartiromo Interview)  

Hmm, really? Are you kidding me? Wait a second…is this the same “go long” Meredith Whitney that expressed the following?

3/17/09: (XLF: 8.55 then, 14.60 now +71% ex-dividends): “These big banks are sitting on loans that were underwritten with bad math, and the stocks are going to go down…these stocks are uninvestable.”

(Fast forward to minute 8:20 for quote above)

2/4/09 (XLF: 8.97 then, 14.60 now +63% ex-dividends): “Investors should not even consider owning banks on an equity basis” (Click here and fast forward to minute 8:10 for quote).

The schizophrenic accounting of her postures are all the more confusing given her stance that the sector was “fairly valued” in October, according to the CNBC Bartiromo interview.

Don’t get me wrong, she made an incredible bearish call on Citigroup in the fall of 2007 and was expecting blood in the streets until a massive rebound in 2009 surprised her. Investors need to be wary of prognosticators that get thrust into the limelight (see Peter Schiff article) for a single prediction. The law of large numbers virtually guarantees a new breed of extreme forecasters will be rotated into the spotlight any time there is a major shift in the market direction. I choose to follow the footsteps of Warren Buffett and stay away from the game of market timing and market forecasts. I believe James Grant from the Interest Rate Observer states it best:

“The very best investors don’t even try to forecast the future. Rather, they seize such opportunities as the present affords them.”

 

Meredith Whitney may be a bright banking analyst and perhaps she’ll ultimately be proven right regarding the downward banking stock price trajectories, but like all bold forecasters she must live by the crystal ball, and die by the crystal ball.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including VFH), but currently have no direct positions in C, GS, or XLF. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 23, 2009 at 2:00 am 13 comments

A Rare Breed: Father of Growth Investing

The man, the myth, the legend.

Successful long-term growth managers are part of a rare breed, but Thomas Rowe Price, Jr.  – also known as the “Father of Growth Investing” – certainly qualifies. Too often, value legends like Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham are highlighted in media circles. Using a baseball analogy, growth heroes like Mr. Price are more akin to atypical knuckleball pitchers, like Hall of Famer Phil Neikro. Writing about Mr. Price is consistent with my belief that investors striving to improve performance will be served well by studying great investors (for other growth superstars, see also Phil Fisher, Ron Baron, and John Calamos, Sr.).

History

T. Rowe Price was born in Linwood, Maryland, in 1898 and died in 1983. Price graduated from Swathmore College in 1919 with a degree in Chemistry, and then went onto work at Baltimore-based Mackubin Goodrich, which eventually became Legg Mason  Inc. (LM). In 1937 he founded T. Rowe Price Associates (TROW) and successfully ramped up the company before the launch of the T. Rowe Price Growth Stock Fund in 1950. Expansion ensued until he made a timely sale of his company in the late 1960s (fortuitously before the 1973-1974 crash).

Philosophy

How did Price feel about growth investing?

“The growth stock theory of investing requires patience, but is less stressful than trading, generally has less risk, and reduces brokerage commissions and income taxes.”

This philosophy makes perfect sense to me; however it runs contrary to the strategies implemented by many managers whom are categorized in the “growth” style box today. In the hyper-sensitive, short-term focused performance world, many “momentum” managers play in this same “growth” sandbox. Typically this means managers buy stocks that are going up and sell stocks that are going down (see “momentum” article) over relatively short time frames, on average.

Price also firmly believed in fundamental research. As part of the investment process, Price believed in the “Life Cycle Theory of Companies,” meaning companies followed the phases of a human (birth, maturity, and decline). Price expands on this idea by stating the following: “An understanding of the life cycle of earnings growth and judgment in appraising future earnings trends are essential to investing.” He placed emphasis on investing in quality companies in good times and bad. In order to strip out economic cycle impacts, he compared company performance to peer performance  – regardless of macroeconomic conditions.

John Train, the writer of “The Money Masters,” maintained the following factors were key underpinnings of Price’s investments:

  • Superior research to develop products and markets.
  • A lack of cutthroat competition.
  • A comparative immunity from government regulation.
  • Low total labor costs, but well-paid employees.
  • At least a 10%  return on invested capital, sustained high profit margins, and a superior growth of earnings per share.

Buy and Hold

The proof was in the pudding when it came to the “patience” referenced in Price’s quote above. For example, in the early 1970s, Price had accumulated gains of +6,184% in Xerox (XRX), which he held for 12 years, and gains of +23,666% in Merck (MRK), which he held for 31 years (Lessons from the Legends of Wall Street, Nikki Ross). Timing was not the most important factor in pulling the decision trigger:

“It is better to be early than too late in recognizing the passing of one era, the waning of old investment favorites and the advent of a new era affording new opportunities for the investor.”

In the polluted world of mass information that we sift through every day, I recommend reviewing the strategies of greats, including the “Father of Growth Investing” (T. Rowe Price). That’s my fatherly advice for you.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and its clients owns certain exchange traded funds, but currently have no direct position in LM, TROW, XRX or MRK. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 20, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Secure Your GPS (Global Portfolio Specialist)

We’ve all been there, our head in our hands, lost in the middle of nowhere. One reason for blame can be overconfidence in the directions provided or our map reading abilities. Now we have GPS (Global Positioning System) devices – a tool I now could never live without. In the investment world, with the damage that has been done, intelligent advice is needed more than ever. Unfortunately, there is no GPS device to guide our investments, but many individuals would do their self a favor by finding the right experienced professional advisor to act as your GPS device (Global Portfolio Specialist).

Getting from point A to point B in the real world can be quite simple. In the investment world, the roadways are constantly shifting. Changes in interest rates, tax policies, unemployment, fiscal initiatives can represent obstacles, the equivalent of road construction barriers, potholes, erosion, mudslides, and earthquakes in our quest for financial freedom. Navigating these winding paths can require a GPS advice. Asking for help or directions can be embarrassing and castigating for some, especially for some proud males. Stubbornly appearing to have the answer can be more important for some, and can cloud the decision making process – even if assistance can lead to the most efficient path to prosperity.

Having a guide at your fingertips as you meet unknown forks in the road is a nice asset to have. Unfortunately finding the right guide is much easier said than done, many guides can have ulterior motives and hidden agendas that conflict with yours. So although, having a guide may be ideal, finding the right guide requires a lot of research (read how to find an advisor). The scope of qualifications between the capabilities of one advisor compared to another can be like comparing a plastic butter knife with a stainless steel swiss-army knife. The cheap butter knife may handle a few simple needs, but most investors would be better served by someone with a breadth of tools that can assist you with a diverse set of circumstances.

The old cliché states men hate to get directions while women seek a security blanket (a plan). GPS is not full proof, as occasionally the software is not updated or gets confused. But tech geeks like me have grown to love the assistance and benefit from the heightened efficiency and safety it provides. Not only am I more confident, but it also gets me to where I want to go in less time.

Having your guide is important when it comes to investments, but having someone with expertise in tax planning (should I consider Roth conversion in 2010?); estate planning (what impact will the expected changes in the estate tax rate have on my future?); and insurance planning (do I have adequate life, health, and business insurance?) can be critical. All these areas can have a profound impact on whether you achieve your personal and financial goals.

Along the road of life, there can be many bumps, twists and turns. If you would like the assistance of a professional advisor, consider doing your homework and finding the appropriate GPS. Here is a checklist:

1)      Where are You Now? This means taking inventory of your assets and liabilities, getting a handle on your income and expenses, and having a firm understanding of your tax and family planning issues (will, trust, powers of attorneys, etc.)

2)      Where are You Going? Next you need to know where you want to go? You may have a rough idea, but in order to create a coherent plan, goals need to be defined.

3)      Create a Plan. Everyone’s map or blueprint will look different. Some will need highly detailed directions, while others due to different circumstances may have less complex needs or shorter distances to travel. Some may need guidance and directions to reach an adjacent state, while others may have more ambitious goals or planning needed to reach the peak of Mount Everest. Different destinations and circumstances will require different planning.

4)      Monitor and Adjust Plan as Necessary. Road conditions, weather, breakdowns, flight cancellations, among many other unforeseen circumstances can change the path to your goal. That’s why it’s so important to review, not only the changes in external circumstances, such as the financial markets, but also any individual changes whether it’s health, family, personal, or goal related.

Some people prefer to do things the old-fashion way or are happy with subpar technology (i.e., compass). However, if you do not want to get lost, or want a clearer defined map, then it’s time to shop for that new Global Portfolio Specialist who can help guide you to your destination.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) or its clients owns certain exchange traded funds, but currently has no direct position in GRMN. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 19, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Darkest Before Dawn – Gaming Industry Waiting for Sunrise

It is always darkest before dawn, and right now the days are dark in the video game industry.

The industry is facing multiple challenges ranging from the migration of players from console games to digital online games; the growth of the iPhone and mobile devices as a free and discounted gaming platform; sky-rocketing development and marketing costs; and not to mention a consumer recession in which coughing up $50-$60 bucks a pop for a next generation platform game can be quite painful (read more on economy).

Recent console price cuts are a welcomed positive, but industry leading Electronic Arts CEO (Ticker: ERTS), John Riccitiello’s sober assessment of the industry was summarized as followed:

“While the recent hardware price reductions are driving higher console sales, the improvement is not enough to get the industry back to flat software sales for the calendar year. We now expect packaged goods software to be down mid-to-high single digits in North America and Europe combined. This is well below our initial expectations for the year.”

 

Not all is lost, however. I am amazed out how gaming has expanded since I was a kid. I may be dating myself, but I vividly recall the endless summer days of playing Adventure and Pac-Man on my Atari 2600 and heading over to the arcade to play Defender with my buddies. Since the 1970s, the industry has matured dramatically.

If you don’t believe me, check out the trailer from the new industry megahit Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Industry analysts are calling for an amazing $500 million in sales…in the first week! By way of comparison, this year’s top-grossing film in the U.S., “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” generated over $200 million in sales over the first five days of its release.

If you have more time to burn, you can take a walk down memory lane to look at the history of video games from 1972 to 2007.

Electronic Arts (ERTS) a Long-Term Winner

As the complexity of the video game industry rises, the barriers to entry become even tougher, and weaker competitors fall to the way side. Industry leaders like Electronic Arts (EA), with approximately $4 billion in revenues and $2 billion in cash and securities on their balance sheet (with virtually no debt), stand to be powerful survivors once the industry finds its way through the valley. Not a large percentage of companies have about a third of its market capitalization in cash. Financial strength alone does not mean much if a company were in continual decline, but I strongly believe the industry will eventually rebound and EA will be pulled up with the tide. In their most recent quarter, the company highlighted their growing market share in North America and Europe couple with their #1 software publisher positioning on the PlayStation3 (PS3) and Microsoft Xbox 360 platforms.

Given all the swirling shifts in the industry, EA is not sitting on its hands either. In conjunction with the company’s earnings release, EA simultaneously announced their acquisition of Playfish, the largest social networking game provider on the internet, attracting over 60 million players per month and securing the #2 game provider position on Facebook. On the cost front, the company is implementing a targeted headcount reduction by approximately 1,500 employees, which will reduce costs by at least $100 million. This austerity plan will make EA more competitive and allow the company to invest more in growth initiatives and better handle the curveballs thrown at them. EA has become more focused too. As part of the cuts, the company will reduce the number of game titles from the mid-60 count last year to the high-30s next year. Quality, not quantity is the new emphasis and more resources will be diverted to EA’s online digital efforts.

The traditional video game packaged-game industry is very hit-driven, much like the movie industry. One way EA deals with this challenge is by creating franchises that keep consumers wanting more, whether it’s sequels to the Sims, Harry Potter, or other titles. Better yet, EA has created a razor blade replacement model with their sports franchises. For example, in Electronic Art’s Madden NFL franchise football game, players need to update their athlete rosters to account for the annual post-season blockbuster trades and fresh rookie signees. EA’s Sports division has a built-in mechanism to drive recurring demand for new content.

With the stock over $60 less than 24 months ago, a large percentage of the industry and company warts have already been discovered and discounted into the current stock price (~$18). As with all my stock picks, I leave dry powder as ammunition for any future purchases at lower prices. The critical two week selling season has historically accounted for up to 1/3 of a company’s total annual sales – that’s what I call a back-end loaded revenue stream! Or put another way, the software industry traditionally generates almost half of its annual sales during the holiday season. The tightly concentrated timeline for sales may bring heightened volatility to the stock’s trading pattern in the coming weeks.

For those with an extended time horizon, one need only look at EA’s cash pile, market positioning, normalized earnings, and long-term industry prospects in order to take a closer examination at Electronic Arts. Times are dark in the video game industry, but dawn will be here soon enough and Electronic Arts is positioned to benefit when the time comes.

Read EA’s Fiscal Q2 Earnings Call Transcript from Seeking Alpha 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and its clients have a long position in ERTS and AAPL at the time this article was originally posted. SCM and its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but currently have no direct position in ATVI, SNE, MSFT, or Facebook. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 18, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Standing on the Shoulders of a Growth Giant: Phil Fisher

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

It was English physicist, astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton who in 1675 stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Investors too can stand on the shoulders of market giants by studying the timeless financial knowledge from current and past market legends. The press, all too often, focuses on the hot managers of our time while forgetting or kicking to the curb those managers whom are temporarily out of favor. Famous and enduring value managers typically have gained the press spotlight, rightfully so in the case of current greats like Warren Buffett or past talents like Benjamin Graham, because they managed to prosper through numerous economic cycles. However, when it comes to growth legends like Phil Fisher, author of the must-read classic Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, many people I bump into have never heard of him. Hopefully that will change over time.

The Past

Born on September 8, 1907, Mr. Fisher lived until the ripe age of 96 when he passed on March 4, 2004. Fisher was no dummy – he enrolled in college at age 15 and started graduate school at Stanford a few years later, before he dropped out and started his own investment firm in 1931. His son, Ken, currently heads his own investment firm, Fisher Investments, writes for Forbes magazine, and has authored multiple investment books. Unlike his dad, Ken has more of a natural bent towards value stocks.

Buy-And-Hold

Philip A. Fisher

Phil Fisher’s iconic book, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, was published in 1958. Mr. Fisher believed in many things and perhaps would have been thrown under the bus today for his long-term convictions in “buy-and-hold.”  Or as Mr. Fisher put it, “If the job has been correctly done when a common stock is purchased, the time to sell it is – almost never.” Not every investment idea made the cut, however he is known to have bought Motorola (MOT) stock in 1955 and held it until his death in 2004 for a massive gain. Generally, he gave initial stock purchases a three-year leash before considering a change to his investment position. If the conviction to purchase a stock for such duration is not present, then the investment opportunity should be ignored.

Fisher’s concentration on growth stocks also shaped his view on dividends. Dividends were not important to Fisher – he was more focused on how the company is investing retained earnings to achieve its earnings growth. Like Fisher, Peter Lynch is another growth hero of mine that also felt there is too much focus on the Price/Earnings (PE) ratio rather than the long-term earnings potential. 

“Scuttlebutt”

Another classic trademark of Fisher’s investing style was his commitment to fundamental research. He was focused on accumulating data covering a broad range of areas including, customers, suppliers, and competitors. Fisher also emphasized factors like market share, return on invested capital, margins, and the research & development budget. What Mr. Fisher called his varied approach to gathering diverse sets of information was “scuttlebutt.”

Buying & Selling Points

Although Fisher believed firmly in buy and hold, he was not scared to sell when the firm no longer met the original buying criteria or his original assessment  for purchased was deemed incorrect.

When buying, Fisher preferred to buy stocks in downturns or temporary problems – contrary to your typical momentum growth manager today (read article on momentum).  Fisher has this to say on the topic: “This matter of training oneself to not go with the crowd but to be able to zig  when the crowd zags, in my opinion, is one of the most important fundamentals of the investment success.”

Learning from Mistakes

Like all great investors I have studied, Phil Fisher also believed in learning from your mistakes:

“I have always believed that the chief difference between a fool and a wise man is that the wise man learns from his mistakes, while the fool never does.”

He expanded on the topic by saying the following:

“Making mistakes is inherent cost of investing just like bad loans are for the finest lending institutions. Don’t blindly accept dominant opinion and don’t be contrary for the sake of being contrary.”

I could only dream of having a fraction of Mr. Fisher’s career success – he retired in 1999 at the age of 91 (not bad timing).  As I continue on my investment journey with my investment firm (Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC), I will continue to study the legendary giants of investing (past and present) to sharpen my investment skills.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) or its clients owns certain exchange traded funds, but currently has no direct position in MOT or BRKA/B. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 17, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Making Safer Asbestos: Einhorn on CDS

Asbestos

David Einhorn, founding hedge fund manager of Greenlight Capital, exploited Credit Default Swaps (CDS) derivative contracts to their fullest in the midst of the financial crisis and now he says any effort to keep them in existence is like making “safer asbestos.” Hypocritical?

As toxic debt devices that profit from credit default triggers, CDSs have created “large correlated and asymmetrical risks,” which have “scared authorities into spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to prevent speculators who made bad bets from having to pay,” according to Einhorn.

The abolishment of the CDS market would have no impact on me (I have never traded a CDS in my life), but in principle Einhorn has no leg to stand on. Just because these unregulated insurance contracts were not properly disclosed or collateralized by American International Group, Inc. (AIG) does not mean a transparent, properly collateralized, central clearing exchange could not be created to efficiently meet the needs of counterparties.

Derivatives Description

Conceptually, a CDS is no different than a derivatives option contract. Take for example a put contract. Like a CDS, a put contract can be purchased as insurance (hedging against price declines on a current holding) or it can be purchased for speculative purposes (profit from future potential price declines if there is no underlying ownership position). All derivatives are structured for hedging or speculation, whether you are talking about options, futures, swaps, or other exotic forms of derivatives (i.e., swaptions). CDSs are no different.

Einhorn is not the first person to disingenuously speak about derivatives. The “do as I say, not as I do” principle holds true for Warren Buffett too. Buffett blasted derivatives as “weapons of mass destruction,” yet he has made billions of dollars (read about Buffett on derivatives) in premiums from writing (selling) multi-year options on various indexes.

Derivatives History

Derivative trading goes as far back as Roman and Greek history when similar contracts were used for crop insurance and shipping purposes. After the Great Depression, the Investment Act of 1934 legitimized options under the watchful eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Subsequently, the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) began trading listed options in 1973. Since then, the investment banks and other financial players have created derivative products making up many different flavors.

The Solution

How does Einhorn feel about central clearing exchanges?

“The reform proposal to create a CDS clearing house does nothing more than maintain private profits and socialised risk by moving the counterparty risk from the private sector to a newly created too big to fail entity.”

 

Oh really? If the utility of hedging contracts has been documented for hundreds of years, then why wouldn’t we create a standardized, transparent, adequately capitalized central clearing house for these tools? Whether Einhorn is asking for the eradication of all derivatives, I cannot be sure.  If his extermination comments apply equally to all derivatives, then I guess we’ll just have to shutter entities like the CBOE, which handled 1.19 billion options contracts last year alone. If eliminating speculation was the focal point of Einhorn’s argument, then perhaps regulators could simply raise the reserve requirements for those merely gambling on price declines or default triggers.

In the end, if what Einhorn recommended came to fruition, he would only be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. CDSs, and other derivatives, serve a healthy and useful purpose towards the aim of creating more efficient financial markets. I agree that the AIG flavor of CDSs were like lethal asbestos, so let’s see if we can now replace it with some safer insulation protection.

Read Financial Times Editorial on David Einhorn

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) or its clients owns certain exchange traded funds, but currently has no direct position in AIG, or BRKA/BRKB. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 16, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

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