Share buyback binge is going strong, investors beware!

Is there anything wrong with this? Yes, it means that companies are spending more money on “financial engineering” than on capital spending. It certainly does indicate that companies are at a loss on how to improve their top line, which is what will ultimately improve the bottom line. It leads to frequent complaints by analysts about the “quality” of earnings.

It’s a very important point. Apple is part of an elite group I call “buyback monsters,” companies that have been aggressively buying back stock for years. Apple’s shares outstanding topped out in 2013 at roughly 6.6 billion shares. Since then it has been down every year and now stands at 5.2 billion.

That is a reduction of 21 percent in shares outstanding since 2013. What’s that mean? It means all other things being equal, the company’s earnings per share are 21 percent higher than they would have been had it not done the buybacks.

But that’s only since 2013 … there are companies that have been doing this much longer. IBM shares outstanding topped out at 2.3 billion way back in 1995, it’s been going down almost every year since then, and now stands at 939 million shares. Think about that. That’s a 60 percent reduction in shares outstanding in a little more than 20 years.

Same with Exxon Mobil, after the Mobil acquisition in 1999, shares outstanding topped out at just shy of 7 billion in 2000 and have been going almost steadily downhill since. There’s now 4.2 billion shares outstanding, a reduction of 40 percent since 2000.

Here are just a few more buyback monsters:

  • Northrup Grumman: 50 percent since 2003
  • Gap: 55 percent since 2005
  • Bed Bath & Beyond: 50 percent since 2005
  • McDonald’s: 36 percent since 2000
  • Microsoft: 30 percent since 2004
  • Intel: 30 percent since 2001
  • Cisco: 32 percent since 2001

Why are there buybacks at all? They were originally used to support the issuance of stock options. The options increased the share count outstanding, so to keep the countdown the company bought back shares. But as the opportunity for significant top-line growth waned, buybacks to reduce share counts became a separate strategy to prop up earnings growth.

What is my beef with buybacks? Part of management’s compensation packages include stock options. Buying back company shares ensures that their stock options don’t expire worthless.  It not only fools investors that the earnings are growing but it rewards poor management.

Take IBM for example, despite being one of the most aggressive buyback monsters on the Street, you can’t say IBM’s stock price has soared in the last decade. In 2014, the company eased off a bit on its buybacks, and the stock headed south. It headed south because IBM was beset by fundamental growth issues: Its revenues from its old line businesses were shrinking and there was not revenue from emerging  businesses (like Watson and artificial intelligence) replacing it.

The lesson: No amount of financial engineering like buying back shares can replace management’s inability to grow the business.

 

 

Opportunities for option traders on the takeover of Time Warner

Back in late October, I wrote that AT & T had reached an agreement in principle to buy Time Warner for about $85.4 billion, Time Warner shareholders would get a combination of cash and AT & T stock. The total purchase price would be around $107.50 and the whole process could take around a year to complete.

Click here to read “Looking for option trades on the Time Warner takeover by AT&T”

The stock price of Time Warner was trading at around $86.75 at that time which was way below the takeover price. I suggested two option trades with April expiry dates and one that didn’t expiry until Jan 2018. All three trades turned out profitable.

  1. Buy 300 shares of Time Warner at $86.75 and sell 3 April $90 call options for $3.00 each. This reduces the adjusted cost base to $83.75 and I am hoping that these call options will expire worthless.

Results: Time Warner stock was called away at $90.00 in April for a $6.25 profit or 7.46% in 6 months.

  1. Buy 100 shares of Time Warner at $86.75, sell 1 April $90.00 call option for $3.00 and 1 April $85.00 put option for $3.80 reducing the purchase price to $79.95 a share. ($86.73-$3.00-$3.80 = $79.95)

Results: Time Warner stock was called away at $90.00 in April and the put option expired worthless. Profit of $90.00 – $79.95 = $10.05 or 12.5%

  1. Buy 10 Jan $97.50 call options for $3.50 that expire in 2018. If the deal goes through, these options could be sold for $10 each.

Results: Time Warner stock closed at $99.18 on Friday, I still have 8 more months to take profits. I could sell the Jan $97.50 call options for $6.05 on Monday for a profit of $6.05 – $3.50 =$2.55 or 73%

Being a senior, I totally forgot about this post, I have to apologize for not providing an update sooner. However, I repeated option strategy number 2 by buying 500 shares of Time Warner at $97.50, selling 5 May 97.50 call options for $1.95 and 5 May 97.50 puts for $1.45 (which reduced my purchased price to $94.10) and made $3.40 or 3.6% in one month.

Unfortunately, the VIX which is the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Option Exchange volatility index has been falling. It measures the market’s expectations of 30 day implied volatility. (Referred to as the fear index) A falling VIX means a reduced amount of fear and cheap option premiums.

Despise the lower possibility of profit, I repeated option strategy number 2 and bought 500 shares of Time Warner at $98.96, sold 5 June 30 100 call options for $1.00 and 5 June 98 put options for $1.00 reducing my overall cost to $96.96 per share. I could potentially make $3.04 if TWX is above $100 by June 30th or 3.14.%

A falling VIX tends to widen the bid / ask price spread on most options. It makes it harder to get your order filled. I had to change my limit order a couple of times during the day to get this Time Warner trade completed.

There is always a risk that this deal will not be approved by regulators. However the takeover price gap has narrow from $86.75 / $107.50 in October to $99.18 / 107.50 in June. A good sign that investors believe that this deal will go through.

Disclaimer: This post is for educational purposes only.

Three key tips for option traders

Most new option traders start by selling covered calls. It is an income producing strategy where you sell a call option on a stock that you own to collect the option premium. However, the premium comes with an obligation, if the call option you sold is exercised by the buyer, you may be obligated to sell your shares of the underlying stock.

1.  Consider the ex-dividend date

A common mistake to avoid is selling a covered call near the ex-dividend date of a stock that you own. Sometimes investors will come in to buy a stock a few days before the dividend date causing the stock value to briefly go up. This could make it very profitable for the buyer of the call option to force you to sell and collect the dividend payment. Not only do you lose the dividend but your broker’s fee to sell your shares will be much higher than normal.

For example; Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.b) has an ex–dividend of May 17th and pays $0.94 per share every quarter. So if you sold a May 19th call option, your shares could be called away early if the call option is in the money.

2.  Open interest or liquidity

Sometimes there is a wide spread between the bid and ask price of an option based on trading volume or the amount of open interest. The open interest will tell you the total number of option contracts that haven’t been exercised or assigned. Many options on Canadian stocks are illiquid and the bid-ask spread can be really extensive.

For example; Shopify (shop) trades on the Canadian exchange at $128. 14 and $93.58 on the U.S. stock exchange. If you wanted to sell a cash secured put option June 125 strike price the bid is $4.50 and ask is $5.75 but the open interest is zero contracts. However, the June 90 put option on the U.S. exchange has an open interest of 873 contracts and the bid is $3.10 and ask is 3.30 making it much easier to trade.

3. Implied volatility can increase when earnings are released

Implied volatility represents the expected price action of the stock over the life of the option. As expectations change, or as the demand for the option increases, implied volatility will also rise. Earnings expectations can influence the option premiums that expire when companies release their earnings.

For example; Ulta Beauty (ulta) is currently trading around $297.55 and is reporting their earnings on May 25th. See the weekly at the money call and put options below:

Calls Bid Ask Open Interest
May 19 $297.50 $2.45 $2.85 141
May 26 $297.50 $8.90 $10.60 87
June 2  $297.50 $10.30 $11.80 0
June 9  $297.50 $10.80 $12.30 2

 

Puts Bid Ask Open Interest
May 19 $297.50 $2.45 $2.80 99
May 26 $297.50 $8.90 $10.50 13
June 2  $297.50 $10.40 $11.90 1
June 9  $297.50 $10.70 $12.00 0

Without the change in implied volatility  the May 26 calls and puts options bid-ask price would have been in the $4.90 to $5.60 range but earnings expectations have increased the value of these options. Take note of the wider bid-ask spread on the June 9 and 16 call and put options which have little or no open interest contracts.

Before you buy or sell options you should always check for the ex-dividend date and earnings release date. Keep a close eye on the number of open interest contracts, a large bid-ask spread could turn a profitable trade into a loser.

 

Disclaimer: The stocks mentioned in this post are for educational proposes only and not recommendations.

Warning signs that oil prices are range bound for many years

The future price of crude oil is very important to the Canadian economy and to investors in the Toronto stock market (TSX). The Canadian oil patch represents a 25% weighting in the overall index. Over the past few months, we have seen a massive sell-off of oil sands assets by foreigners.

In March, Royal Dutch Shell and Marathon Oil sold stakes in the Alberta oil sands project to Canadian Natural Resources for $12.7 billion. Marathon sold its 20% stake in the project for $2.5 billion. Later in March, Conoco Phillips sold their partnership in the oil sands to Cenovus Energy for $17.7 billion.

Reuters reported last week that BP is considering the sale of its stakes in three Canadian oil sands projects.

“BP’s 50 per cent stake in the Sunrise project near Fort McMurray in Alberta, where Husky Energy Inc owns the rest and is the operator, is the most valuable of the three assets. It also owns a 50 percent stake in Pike, operated by Devon Energy Corp, which is still awaiting a final investment decision, and is majority-owner of the Terre de Grace oil sands pilot project.”

Also in the news is Chevron was exploring the sale of its 20% stake in Canada’s Athabasca oil sands project which could fetch $2.5 billion.

“Faced with a lower oil price environment and challenging economics, which include high cost operations and carbon taxes, global players are increasingly put off by the oil sands.”

Extracting oil from the vast majority of Canada’s oil sands is a very labor and capital intensive process. It requires much higher crude oil prices to justify the more expensive extraction method. Global players exiting their oil sands positions could be a warning sign that the price of oil getting above the $60 level is overly optimistic.

The upcoming IPO of Saudi Arabia’s state own oil company (Saudi Aramco) is another warning sign that the price of oil could be range bound. The company’s oil assets are valued around 2 trillion dollars. It begs the question; why would Saudi Arabia sell part of its state own oil assets to investors?

The simple answer is the Saudi’s need more revenue to pay for their government spending programs. I believe that this is another warning sign that the price of oil will stay lower for much longer. OPEC’s current production cuts are aimed at stabilizing the oil market so that the Saudi Aramco IPO will be successful in raising much need cash for Saudi Arabia.

The key question for the future of the oil market is for how long can a surge in U.S. shale supplies make up for the slow pace of growth elsewhere in the oil sector. The 5 year chart below illustrates the returns on owning two different oil ETFs. You would have lost money owning the Canadian oil ETF (XEG) and you would have broken even on the Spider ETF (XLE). 

In my humble opinion, long term buy and hold investors should avoid oil stocks. I have been bearish on Canadian oil companies for a long time because our oil and gas is land lock. Our only customer is the United States and they have already put a 20% tariff on softwood lumber. There are growing tensions around renegotiating NAFTA which could lead to a tariff on Canadian oil. Oil stocks are still trade-able but you need to be very nibble.

 

Do you agree or disagree? All comments are welcomed.

 

Disclaimer: This post is for discussion purposes only, do your own research before you invest.

 

 

Baby Buffett loses 4 Billion on Valeant shares

Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman first came to my attention when he invested in Canadian Pacific railroad. As an activist investor, Ackman started a lengthy proxy battle with the board of directors to remove Fred Green as CEO and appoint Hunter Harrison in his place. Not only was Ackman successful but it was very profitable for his hedge fund since the value of CP shares more than doubled under Harrison’s leadership.

In early 2015, Bill Ackman invested in Valeant, another Canadian company. His hedge fund purchase shares around $196 and recently sold all of them at $11 a share. He accelerated his losses by buying call options and selling put options.

Hindsight is of course 20-20, are there any investment lessons that we can use?

 Lesson: Intelligent people are capable of doing very dumb things.

Bill Ackman is clearly a smart man otherwise his Pershing Square hedge fund wouldn’t manage pension fund money. But if you asked the average investment professional /your grandmother whether it is a good idea to stick over a quarter of your assets into a highly levered pharma roll up the answer would tend to be a firm “no”.

Lesson: Position sizing is very, very important.

Always be aware of your risk of ruin, no matter how much you are convinced the odds are in your favor. Regardless of how amazingly smart and brilliant you are and how many hundreds of hours of research you have done, it is perfectly possible that you will lose money on any given investment. Pershing Square had too large a position to simply sell its stake and walk away when things started to go wrong.

Lesson: Highly incentivized management teams can still blow themselves up, and take you down with them.

Part of the original appeal of Valeant to the hedge funds that backed it was how the CEO’s stock options had been structured to make him highly incentivized to get the share price as high as possible. Having management teams with “skin in the game” is clearly important but this does not mean they will not do something very stupid.

Lesson: Auctions are not usually very good places to find bargains.

Ackman admits that he now believes Valeant “substantially overpaid” for Salix, its last big acquisition before things fell apart. A big problem with a role up strategy is paying high prices for third rate assets that no one else in the world is willing to buy.

Lesson: Beware of political risk.

Valeant used aggressive drug pricing to help pay for their acquisitions which got the attention of American lawmakers. Bill Ackman had to testify at a hearing held by the U.S. Senate aging committee which was reviewing escalating drug prices. It also became a big issue during the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Lesson: Take a loss, don’t let your Ego get in your way.

There is no doubt that billionaires tend to have large egos. Being labeled “Baby Buffett” on the cover of Forbes is quite the ego booster. But there is an old saying, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. Ackman’s buying call options and selling put options on a losing position is a clear sign that his ego wouldn’t accept taking a loss on Valeant shares.

Postscript: The share price of CSX railroad jumped up 35% on rumors that Hunter Harrison would be the new CEO. Harrison got the job but can he deliver another turnaround? It may be too early to tell. However, I bought some shares of CSX for my investment club. 

 

Canadian Marijuana bill gives a new meaning to Happy Easter

On Thursday, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. It would be the first developed country in the world to fully legalize pot since the international war on drugs began in the 1970s. The government hopes to clear the parliamentary and procedural hurdles to make pot legal by July 1, 2018.

The bill would allow people to own up to 30 grams of dried or fresh cannabis and sets the minimum at 18 years of age, though provinces and territories can set a higher legal age. Consumers can grow up to four plants at home or buy from a licensed retailer. The federal government will handle licensing producers while provincial governments will manage distribution and retail sales.

Speculators have dived into Canadian marijuana stocks raising concerns of a green bubble. Only two marijuana producers are showing any profits. Most companies are spending money to increase their production facilities in anticipation of increase recreational use. None of the players know the exact size of the recreational market, with sales estimates ranging from nearly $5 billion to roughly $10 billion.

The Canadian marijuana index which contains 12 stocks already has a market cap of over 5 billion.

Marijuana Index Ticker Market Cap
Canopy Growth Corporation WEED 1.61b
Aurora Cannabis Inc. ACB 903.73m
Aphria Inc. APH 898.84m
Cronos Group Inc. MJN 411.54m
Supreme Pharmaceuticals Inc SL 293.17m
OrganiGram Holdings Inc OGI 285.50m
CanniMed Therapeutics Inc. CMED 274.54m
Emblem Corp EMC 205.47m
Hydropothecary Corporation THCX 174.94m
Emerald Health Therapeutics I EMH 126.65m
THC Biomed Intl Ltd THC 77.32m
Naturally Splendid Enterprises NSP 20.90m

Beware that insiders have been selling according to Bloomberg!

“Since March 1, five directors, officers and board members with Canopy Growth Corp. sold 3.2 million shares worth at least $7.5 million, including Chief Executive Officer Bruce Linton, who sold $3.7 million worth of his holdings, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Between March 1 and April 10, eight executives and the chief cultivator for Aurora Cannabis Inc. sold a total of 4.9 million shares worth $11.8 million, data show.”

A found two companies listed on U.S. exchanges that are in the medicinal marijuana field that look interesting.

 

AbbVie (ABBV) is ahead of the field in medicinal marijuana because its cannabis-based drug Marinol has already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is currently being marketed. Marinol relieves nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy. It is also used for AIDS patients who have lost their appetites.

GW Pharmaceuticals (GWPH) could be a growth play in the medicinal marijuana field. With a market cap of $2.16 billion, the company has researched marijuana-based medicines since 1990 and has a promising drug called Epidiolex. The drug has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but it is showing effectiveness in treating epileptic seizures. It is cannabis-based and could gain wide acceptance quickly if approved.

On a personal note, my 84 year old mother suffers from high levels of anxiety. Her doctor prescribed a number of different anxiety drugs but she couldn’t tolerate the side effects. Out of desperation, I convinced her reluctant doctor to refer her to a cannabis clinic for assessment. She has been approved and is currently ingesting small quantities of cannabis oil. It is still too early to tell but I have noticed some improvement.

Happy Easter

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the above mentioned stocks. This post is for educational purposes.

Active or passive investing? Why I now use both approaches

There is perhaps no controversy in the investing world more contentious than active versus passive equity investment management. Members of both camps constantly argue that their way is unequivocally the best, despite real-world results that support one side’s argument one year and the other’s the next.

Blackrock, the world’s largest money manager, is overhauling its actively managed equities business. They are cutting jobs, dropping fees and relying more on computers to pick stocks. This is a clear indication how difficult it has become for humans to beat the market.

“BlackRock  CEO Larry Fink has sometimes expressed disappointment in the performance of the company’s actively managed stock funds, and he has pivoted increasingly to focusing on the company’s data-driven “Scientific” equity teams.”

Most investors seem to be in either the active or passive camp, few use both methods. For years, I have been in the active camp because I use options to make money during up and down markets. However, providers of exchange traded funds (ETF’s) have evolved beyond just offering low cost sector and index funds.

The growing popularity of ETFs have increased competition among providers to attract investors to purchase their products. I have notice an increase in the number of products that include covered call and also some put right options.

                               A Partial list of Covered Call ETFs

Advisor Shares STAR Global Buy-Write ETF (VEGA)
CBOE S&P 500 Buy Write Index ETN (BWV)
Credit Suisse Gold Shares Covered Call ETN (GLDI)
Credit Suisse Silver Shares Covered Call ETN (SLVO)
First Trust High Income ETF (FTHI)
First Trust Low Beta Income ETF (FTLB)
Horizons S&P 500 Covered Calls ETF (HSPX)
Recon Capital NASDAQ 100 Covered Call ETF (QYLD)
S&P 500 BuyWrite Portfolio ETF (PBP)
BMO Covered Call Canadian Banks ETF (ZWB-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
BMO Covered Call Dow Jones Industrial Average Hedged to CAD ETF (ZWA-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
BMO Covered Call Utilities ETF (ZWU-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
BMO US High Dividend Covered Call ETF (ZWH-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
First Asset Can-60 Covered Call ETF (LXF-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
First Asset Can-Energy Covered Call ETF (OXF-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
First Asset Can-Financials Covered Call ETF (FXF-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
First Asset Can-Materials Covered Call ETF (MXF-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange
First Asset Tech Giants Covered Call ETF (CAD Hedged) (TXF-TSX)listed on the Canadian TSX stock exchange

A key advantage of ETFs with covered call option writing is investors have some downward protection during these uncertain times. Plus you don’t have to be approved by your financial institution to trade options. Keep in mind that the management expensive ratios are going to be higher than index funds and these ETFs are also fairly new so it may be difficult to evaluate their past returns.

 

Disclaimer: These are not recommendations, do you own research before investing.