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.

 

 

Is Basic Income the answer to a new AI world?

I am so glad that I am a retired senior. I don’t have to worry about a robot taking my job. Since I have lots of time on my hands to think, I wonder what a new AI world would look like. For example; will my 2 year old granddaughter even need to get a driver’s licence? Will the Uber or cab that she orders even come with a driver?

Now I have always been a big fan of science fiction movies. There is a scene in the movie “Logan” where Wolverine has to dodge driver-less trucks to cross the highway to help some people. Installing AI in 16 wheeler trucks could replace the need for a lot of truckers.

Fast food restaurants have been the training ground for teenagers and young adults.  I used to tell my kids that they better get a good education or you will end up using the phrase “would you like fries with that” while working at MacDonald’s. However, even MacDonald’s are installing new self-serve kiosks. Now you can even order your Starbucks coffee using your phone. Where will young people get work experience?

Everywhere I look, jobs are slowing disappearing, the new AI technology seems to have very few limits.

“For example, Australian company Fastbrick Robotics has developed a robot, the Hadrian X, that can lay 1,000 standard bricks in one hour – a task that would take two human bricklayers the better part of a day or longer to complete.”

Japan has the highest percentage of people over the age of 60 and their population is shrinking. As a nation, there is a shortage of workers and they have embraced the use of robots in the work place. This trend could be coming to North America sooner than you think.

As a baby boomer, I worry about the future cost of health care. The world population is aging and health care costs are raising. I hope that science fiction turns into reality and my caregiver looks something like this.

   or this 

Why universal basic income may be necessary

A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Those individuals working in transportation, logistics, office management and production are likely to be the first to lose their jobs to robots, according to the report.

For many, basic income sounds like a free ride or welfare. Economist believe that masses of people will not just sit at home but will make a contribution by continuing to work. The basic income would allow recipients to explore other options not available to them if they are struggling just to survive,  such as retraining or to find new job opportunities.

In theory, new opportunities would spring up to replace jobs done by machines. However, there are some practical problems, like where will government get the money if less people are working to pay for a basic income program? The North American education system would require a major overhaul to put more job training skills into the curriculum.

Some additional information to consider

The government of Ontario just announced a three year basic income pilot project to help low income earners in three cities. A single person can apply to receive $16,889 a year and couples will receive $24,027. Recipients who are employed will keep what they made from their jobs but their basic income would be reduced by half their earnings. For example, a single person earning $10,000 per year from a part-time job would receive $11,989 in basic income ($16,989 less 50 per cent of their earned income), for a total income of $21,989.

Is basic income just a pipe dream or a future reality?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

A reality check on Trump’s tax reform agenda

Still etched in my brain was the great income trust debacle that took place on Halloween of 2005. The Canadian conservative government won re-election promising not to change the tax preferred treatment of income trusts. That promise was broken and Canadian investors lost billions of dollars overnight. The value of my income trust holdings fell by 40% instantaneously.

Needless to say, as an investor in U.S. stocks, failure to appeal and replace Obamacare (ACA) makes me very nervous. Trump’s promise of massive tax cuts and infrastructure spending will need support from the Freedom Caucus (tea  party) who want a border adjustment tax to offset some of the loss revenue.

There is also a complicated Senate rule that would prevent Democrats from blocking the tax bill. Under the rule, the bill cannot add to long-term budget deficits. That means every tax cut has to be offset by a similar tax increase or a spending cut.

‘‘Yes this does make tax reform more difficult,’’ said Ryan. ‘‘But it does not in any way make it impossible.’’

Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday the administration plans to turn quickly to tax reform with the goal of getting an overhaul approved by Congress by August.

House Republicans have released a blueprint that outlines their goals for a tax overhaul. It would lower the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, and reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three. The House plan retains the mortgage interest deduction but repeals the deduction for state and local taxes.

However, nearly 34 million families claimed the mortgage interest deduction in 2016, reducing their tax bills by $65 billion. Also, more than 43 million families deducted their state and local income plus personal property taxes from their federal taxable income last year. The deduction reduced their federal tax bills by nearly $70 billion.

On the corporate side, the plan would repeal the 35 percent corporate income tax and replace it with a 20 percent tax on profits from selling imports and domestically produced goods and services consumed in the US. Exports would be exempt from the new tax. (border adjustment tax)

The general goal for Republicans is to lower income tax rates for individuals and corporations and make up the lost revenue by reducing exemptions, deductions and credits. Overhauling the tax code is actually hard because every tax break has a constituency and the biggest tax breaks are among the most popular.

Over the past week, some investors are starting to doubt that the tax cuts will get passed. The value of the U.S. dollar has weaken and ten year bond yields have fallen  from 2.62% to 2.4%. Eight of the ten sectors that make up the S&P 500 were negative for the week. The biggest losers were U.S. financials (-3.72%), energy (-1.78%) industrials (-1.75%) and materials (-1.3%).

There is a lot of money on the sidelines that missed the Trump rally and are waiting for a stock market correction. I took some profits before the Canadian federal budget that hinted at tax increases so I also have some money to re-invest. The Canadian conservative government taught me a valuable lesson back in 2005. What government promises to do and what they actually do can have a negative affect on your investments.

 

Gold as a hedge against Trump’s Border Tax

Talk of a “border adjustment tax” has gone from the sidelines to center stage in Washington, which has a lot of people asking: What is it exactly?

Currently, U.S. corporations are taxed on their worldwide profits at 35 percent. The House GOP plan would change that radically. The new tax formula would tax domestic revenue (minus domestic costs) at a much lower rate of 20 percent. The net effect would be one that favors exports over imports.

The change would convert the country’s tax system to a “territorial” system rather than a worldwide tax system. It’s meant to create incentives for domestic production because companies also would no longer be able to reduce their taxable income by deducting their overseas expenditures.

The plan would essentially subsidize exports and lead to a 20 percent tax on imports for corporations.

Retailers are very opposed to a border adjustment tax because a large percentage of the products they sell are imported. The end result is Americans will pay higher prices for consumer goods including imported fruits and vegetables.

Now economists who support the tax say the policy would lead to a sharp rise in the value of the dollar. As a result, retailers’ costs will go down so much that it will be a wash to consumers. However, many CEO’s worry whether the economists are right in that assessment.

In the past, gold and gold stocks have been used by money managers to hedge against inflation, currency risk and world chaos. For years, financial advisors recommend having 5% to 7% of your portfolio in gold or gold stocks.

Unfortunately, we have been living with deflation so gold as an investment has not performed very well over the past five years. The chart below compares three ETFs – gold bullion GLD, large cap gold miners GDX and junior gold miners GDXJ

gold

The border adjustment tax could change all that. It could cause mayhem in world trade, leading to higher inflation and extreme volatility in currency markets. The chart below illustrates the 2017 year to date price movements in the above mention ETF’s

gold-1

The biggest risk to owning gold or gold stocks is if the Fed’s interest rate policy changes and they are more aggressive in raising rates. This could cause the value of the U.S. dollar to increase which would be bad for gold.

Fed watchers believe that the June meeting would be the earliest date for an increase in interest rates. The stock market has only priced in two rate hikes for all of 2017. President Trump’s immigration ban and talk on renegotiating trade deals will be in the news for the next few months making investors nervous.

I am considering three short-term trades in gold

  1. Dollar cost average: Buy 300 shares of GDX  at 24.50, Sell 3 Apr 26 call options for $1.20 & Sell 3 April 24 put options for $1.50 (Total investment = $6540.00 U.S.) 
  2. Covered call: Buy 100 shares of GLD at $116.20, sell 1 April $118 call for $2.25 (Total investment $9,370.00 U.S)
  3. Call spread: Buy 5 GLD April $110 calls for $7.10 & Sell 5 GLD April $118 calls for $2.25  (Total investment =$2,425.00 U.S.)

 

The problem with using options in these trade choices is the VIX that measures volatility is quite low. Having to wait until the April 19 expiration date reduces the profit potential. That being said, I think that the first trade is less risky, if I am wrong on the direction of the price of gold. I would own 600 shares of GDX at an average price of $ 22.90 but could then sell more call options.

Do you own any investments in gold stocks or gold ETF’s?

 

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