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Memorial Day Musings

It’s been a pretty quiet weekend and our futures are up about a quarter point as the EU session daws to a close.

The DAX gave up half it’s gains into the close and the CAC never could get going while the FTSE is closed today.  Asia was pretty flat, except the Shanghai, which fell 2.4% steeply into the close.  Our futures were up about half a point but gave up half of that in what is, of course, thin to non-existent trading.  12 of Spain’s 45 banks are in merger talks as they scramble to become too big to fail and Trichet made some nice noises this morning

In the best commentary yet on the global situation, the 6 month-old "Best Party," which is headed by a comedian, won the Reykjavik elections, after campaigning with the catch slogan "Whatever Works."  The Best Party promises to get a polar bear for the zoo and preaches the benefits of "anarcho-surrealism."  While the Best Party’s critics implored its team of comedians, actors and musicians to end their campaign, soon to be-mayor Jon Gnarr insisted he would follow through to the end. It was the best way to expose the "ridiculous" state of traditional politics, he said.  Gnarr also promised free towels, to lobby for a Disney Iceland, getting Parliament drug-free by 2020 and to cut down on the number of Santas at Christmas.  Heck, sounds good to me!

Political cartoon

I love this video from Barry Ritholts’ site:  "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Another good catch from Barry is Alan Abelson’s Barron’s article that notes that insiders have been outnumbering buying during May at a rate of 77:1, a worsening situation we’ve been tracking all year in Ilene’s "Insider Zone."  Insiders aren’t supposed to sell based on specific events they know about but they can be a good indicator of long-term economic problems that are currently being sugar-coated, even in their own outlooks. 

One of the big ones I’m seeing and have been talking about for some time is margin pressures, brought about by persistently high commodity and labor prices in the face of slowing consumer spending.  Deflation rears its ugly head this weekend as Wal-Mart is slashing prices pushing the cost of 32 essential grocery items like Coke and ketchup down by 30%.  In fact, Wal-Mart is bearing the cost of some of the deep price cuts, not its suppliers, according to Bill Pecoriello, an analyst who heads ConsumerEdge Research LLC, based on discussions with industry officials.  According to Pecoriello, on a basket of five food items, from Coke to Lay’s potato chips, the total price was $11.23 at Wal-Mart, 24 percent less than it was a year ago. It’s also almost 14 percent lower than Kroger and almost 26 percent lower than Safeway, according to Pecoriello’s estimates. The firm gathers pricing data representing 15,000 stores across the country.

We passed a major milestone this weekend as our National Debt Clock rolled past the $13,000,000,000,0000 mark.  That doesn’t include another $2Tn in local municipal debt or $1.1Tn in state deficits and we are, of course, not even mentioning the $14Tn Social Security Liability or the already $19Tn Prescription Drug Program that was passed by Bush just 7 years ago, which is kind of funny because it costs more money per year than Obama’s entire Health Care Reform is projected to cost over 10 years yet it has done pretty much nothing other than funnel Billions of dollars to the the drug companies that lobbied for it.

But I digress.  Speaking of health care, ALL of those outstanding debs and liabilities pale in comparison to our $75Tn Mdicare Deficit.  This massive unfunded liability is what Hillary tried to get a handle on 20 years ago and what we are now tackling in a very half-assed way with the current watered-down reform.  I guess Iceland has it right as this number is so big (5 times GDP) and so unfixable that you may as well make a joke out if it and elect the funny guys because it’s way too depressing otherwise…

 

There were a few great graphics this weekend.  One came from Kipliger called "How Much Does It Cost to Retire?" and the other one is a "must view" because it says so much about consumer psychology and we at PSW spend a lot of time studying investor psychology so think of ways investors do the same thing with "brand name" stocks:

Now that we have this firm bais for discussion with margin pressures and brand-name vs. generics – let’s look at how they combine in coffee wars, where McDonald’s is facing off against Starbucks with their McCafe brand that already grabbed $1.5Bn in business last year – some of which certainly affected SBUX.  Now the Baristas strike back by putting their downscale Seattle’s Best Coffee in Burger King and Subway restaurants as well as AMC movie theaters and supermarkets across the country.  Will this lead to coffee deflation or just over-saturation and, if so, how do we get the stains out?

Speaking of over-saturation, there can be only one in the wireless telecom end-game and T and VZ have now passed the 60% mark in market share with the beheading of competitors Aloha (eaten by T), Suncom (eaten by TMobile) along with Rural Cellular and Alltell, who were snapped up by VZ. 

The DOJ has labled the wireless market to be "highly concentrated," which is just a step before "in need of breaking up" so we’ll have to keep an eye on this sector but I think T and VZ are now frozen out from anything but internal growth and they have to be careful about that because 66% market share will be a call to action

Speaking of Ireland (or was it Scotland?) – Ireland is, according to IrishCentral.com, TOTALLY SCREWED.  These guys need a comedy government stat as it seems, according to former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson: "Ireland’s politicians, rather than facing up to their problems, are making things ever worse. Simply put, the Irish miracle was a mirage driven by clever use of tax-haven rules and a huge credit boom that permitted real estate prices and construction to grow quickly before declining ever more rapidly…  When we adjust Ireland’s figures accordingly, the situation is dire. The budget deficit was about 17.9 percent of G.N.P. in 2009, and based on European Commission data (and assuming the G.N.P.-G.D.P. gap remains the same) it will be roughly 14.6 percent in 2010 and 15.1 percent in 2011." 

Political cartoon

Time has a good summary of Germany’s attempts to prop this whole mess up but it’s a weak old and I’m really starting to get worried that Merkel is losing the power to force Germany to bail out the EU for Germany’s own good.  I’ve been reading Der Spiegel but I think all news from Germany needs to monitored closely as any change from their government in policy towards maintaining the Europ could doom it.   I don’t think it’s likely but the possibility is frightening, pretty much the same way I didn’t see how Al Gore could lose the 2000 election – sometimes entire nations make irrational decisions and the unthinkable happens and we are left to deal with the invevitable disaster that follows.  Sorry, I tend to get political when I do a lot of reading as all roads to economic hell have been paved with Bush’s intentions…

Speaking of Bush – It turns out our 43rd President was one of The Richest Presidents Ever but only half as wealthy as the man who preceded him.  Bill Clinton has an inflation-adjusted net worth of $38M while GWB is only good for $20M – even with the tax cuts.  Obama has $5M, Poppy Bush $23M, Reagan $13M, Carter $7M (same as Ford), Nixon had $15M but poverty fighting Johnson had $98M (radio and TV stations) and ultra-liberal Kennedy was our only Billionaire President.  What I found most interesting was our #2 man – George Washington!  Adjusted for inflation, the General’s 8,000 acres of Virginia farmland (that was cared for by 300 slaves) was worth $525M.  Washington’s salary was, at the time, also the most of any President, consuming 2% of the US budget – what would be $60M a year today! 

Of course Kennedy didn’t mind paying 70% on his additional, marginal income, nor did any President since the Great Depression when the low-tax policies of the 20s were blamed for leaving our country in a weakened financial condition that led to economic disaster.  Bush the First drove top rates down from 70% to 50% and Bush II took us to 37% but no individual tax breaks compare to what our richest citizens are getting today – the Corporations! 

They say nothing is certain, but death and taxes, right?  Well, not quite, it turns out, if you’re a large corporation.  According to Forbes, many of America’s 25 largest companies pay less – much less – in taxes than the average American. How so? Unlike most Americans, large companies can operate losing businesses in the U.S. – and profitable ones abroad, where tax rates are lower. That’s how a company like General Electric has managed to owe a negative $1.1 billion in income tax in 2009 ( that’s quite a refund), despite its $10.3 billion pretax income and $157 billion in sales. Some banks made out quite well last year, too: Bank of America did not pay a dime in taxes on its $4.4 billion income, thanks to a slew of deductions and provisions for credit losses; neither did Citigroup.  Zero taxes on $10.3Bn in earnings – keep that in mind when you are wondering if GE’s CNBC may or may not have a bias…

On the rarely seen opposite side of the corporate coin, Panera Bread Co has opened a "Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe" as a non-profit with the door policy of "Take what you need, leave your fair share."  The café, which reopened Sunday as a nonprofit, has cashiers who provide receipts with suggested prices and direct customers to the store’s five donation boxes. The menu is the same as Panera, except for the day-old baked goods brought in from sister stores in the area.  “I’m trying to find out what human nature is all about,” Ron Shaich, who stepped down as Panera’s CEO last week but remains as chairman, told USA Today.My hope is that we can eventually do this in every community where there’s a Panera.”

See, if I read long enough, I can find one story that brightens my day – something that does give me hope for the future and resores my faith in humanity.  It only takes one man to change the whole world so my most profound thanks to Ron Shaich for trying - I’m already a customer and I’ll now become a shareholder too as it’s nice to own a stock you can be proud to be associated with.  

Our thanks should also go out to all the troops today, who have fought and are fighting for us around the world.  It’s up to those of us at home to work towards giving them a country they can be proud to come home to.

Have a happy holiday,

- Phil

 


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  1. shadowfax

    Phil and or anyone else,
    I have a new Windows 7 computer that different from XP doesn’t crash or lock up every month, good! I have many problems that the system always tells me how to fix. The answers are in cyber speak and they never work, usually I am blocked from making changes period. In the past  I have bought books, CDs, and paid the local experts. What I have found is the experts are the most expensive and least knowledgeable. Windows 7 is way beyond them, even sujesting to get Explorer6 and dump 8. Online help has not worked at all.
    Any advice or sujestion as this is a critical tool. I have solved 1 issue. What would be best is a this is how you do this book with an index to find the answers and not say change your default programs wich turn out to be none of the above works, I tried them all. How do I get control back? Even Etrade didn’t know that Java has 32 and 64 bit downloads. The tec guys wasted 3 hours and that is the only thing fixed by me not them. I backed up to an external hard drive and after trying changes and screwing everything up failed to get that to load and ended up alt F10 loose everything including 100 updates and a day to get back to the same place. XP was better and that HP is hear also but I get spyware every time I get online even 1 mimute. Please help and Thanks!

  2. Phil

    Well you just talked me out of Windows 7!  Franlkly, this is why I never get any operating system that isn’t at least a year old, they do this every time and it takes ages to get things compatible.  I could suggest getting a Mac or an older PC but I don’t even think it would be a good idea to try to overlay an older operating system on your current computer.   Perhaps you would have some luck switching to Firefox or Safari as browsers. 

    I have the same old Dell I’ve been using for almost 3 years now with XP Pro and it took Tina (who used to manage Compuserve’s Houston office) about 3 weeks to get this running the way I like it so the idea of getting a new computer and going through a month of crap mortifies me.  I have an HP Laptop with Vista that Tina handed me in good working order and has never given me any trouble and it runs 2 of my screens while my IMac gave me no trouble out of the box and Tina never touched it (she hates Macs because she can’t "do stuff" to them).

    Sorry I can’t be more help than that – My XP does crash about once a week but I’m used to that and it’s a small price to pay for a computer running 3 screens with 5 Explorer sessions, Email and about 3 other programs and at least 20 tabs running under the 5 IEs – I really think it’s expecting a lot asking it not to crash as well!

  3. craigzooka

     I used to be a windows XP user and decided one day to buy a MAC laptop.  It was slightly different at first, but I started noticing something.  Everything just friggin works.  No spyware at all, never a lost driver, the help system takes me exactly to where I need to be to solve the problem and even allows me to do it.  
     
    I dont want to sound preachy, I know plenty of people for whom windows 7 works just fine.  But after I switched over there is no looking back.  
     
    I used to be quite the computer geek having used everything from DOS6.0 up through windows xp and loved tweaking everything.  At some point I got tired of having to tweak every dam thing just to get the box to do what I paid for, I just wanted to plug the thing in, connect to the internet, log on to TOS and have everything work without 10 hours of intervention from me.  
     
    I am not trying to convince you to switch to the darkside, I am just sharing my experience.  But if you do decide to come to the dark side, we would love to have you.

  4. craigzooka

     Phil, have you played with the 27" iMac,  its what I use and it is the perfect size for 2 browsers side by side, or a browser and TOS open.  Although, with all this screen real estate I find myself maximizing TOS and playing with all its fun gadgets.  I think it would be kind of cool to see how people set up there TOS Home screen, if there was a way to sanitize the picture so no personal account stuff is there. 

  5. kinkistyle

    As both a former XP and Mac OSX and current Windows 7 user I must say that I really like Windows 7 — in fact I like it more than I do Mac OSX.  Mostly because I grew up on Windows, but also because it is very reliable and actually emulates Mac OSX well enough that it combines the best of both worlds.
     
    Also, just to address the "new OS" issue — Windows 7 is actually an upgrade of the disaster known as Windows Vista.  So it is actually an updated and improved version of Vista with all the kinks and calamities ironed out.   Albeit there are definitely compatibility issues with older 32bit software, those seem to be few and far between (for me it was with Inituit software — but they are notoriously unreliable)
     
    I have long had a love-hate relationship with Microsoft products because although I enjoy the functionality of the software I often have issues with their sometimes unethical behavior, Windows 7 has proven to be a solid, fast, user-friendly operating system that hardly ever crashes and when applications do crash, it usually recovers smoothly without having to reboot.  But the proof is in the pudding, so I suggest you play around with it before you purchase it.
     
    The one caveat I must proffer, is that you do need a fairly robust system in order to run the OS to its utmost potential, but its still cheaper than owning a top of the line Mac system.   

  6. flipspiceland

    If big Pharma is doing so well with theBamster’s coming Obamacare, why are all the stocks at yearly lows, many of them laying off tens of thousands of workers, and generally losers?

  7. flipspiceland

    I guess i’ve become too cynical to believe that the former POTUSes have the wealth above.  I would venture that that much and more is stashed where no one but they and their heirs will ever see it.

  8. kevinb63v

    Hey Phil,
     Hope you had a terrific Holiday! I appreciate your response to my question regarding income. I’m amazed how you find the time to answer so quickly and, particularly in the case of newer members like myself, so comprehensively.
     
    Regarding the reply, I actually have been following your articles and Members Chat, as well as working through the New Members Guide, and learing quite a bit. In particular, I found your response Getting the Hang/Amatta to be masterful. That’s not exactly the situation I was thinking about, however.
     
    Perhaps I can express it better by putting it in context. I started utilizing options about 2 1/2 years ago. I was subscribing to ChangeWave Investing (Tobin Smith) and they had an options service run by John Nadjarian, who I think runs OptionMonster, which I saw you make reference to recently. I bought puts and calls; it wsa hit and miss; I stopped. Since the "house" seemed to win 80% of the time, from what I read, I bought and read "Put Options: How to Use this Powerful Financial Tool for rofit and Protection" by Jeffrey M. Cohen, and "Show Me the Money, Covered Calls and Naked Puts for a Monthly Cash Income" by Ronald Groenke (I also purchased his proprietary software). I found both books excellent and soon after started subscribing to the Motley Fool Options service. Based on these readings, I started selling covered calls and naked puts. My expectation from the material was that 12% was reasonable, 24% if using 1X Margin (a conservative method, according to the books). My experience after about a dozen trades was positive and generally successful.
     
     My current household situation has been effected by the depression/recession/whatevfer you want to call it, and a brush with the big C. What I’m looking to do, is to supplement current income by 1000-2000/month. I am conservative both politically and fiscally to begin with, and I certainly don’t want to exacerbate the negative side of current circumstances by playing options wildly. I have taken away the perspective from my research that it is possible to achieve such returns utilizing a strategy revolving around a 3 month cycle of covered calls/put selling with a capitalization of about 60K.  Your methods seem infinitely more effective. I’m wondering if carving out somewhere in the neighborhood of 60/250K of my non retirement portfolio could be utilized to provide a lilttle help to tide us over in the interim until things are back to normal and maybe 3 years down the road (God willing) supplement my retirement income (I’ll be gettting a govt pension}

  9. Jbur

    Wintel computers: I’ve owned probably 50 of them over the past 20 years, usually 10 of them at a time in my past private practice on a LAN, and usually 3 at the same time at home (one for me, my daughter, and son), and I can tell you that I have never had a love-hate affair with them, I have always hated them. Never ending problems of one sort or another: for example, they update the software (Vista was a total disaster) and peripherals don’t work, or applications have to be updated, or applications simply won’t run. Constant waste of time to update anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing, and then run it periodically. I have had two Macs in my career and have had few if any problems with them. People can complain of  "how expensive Macs are", but a  lot of what you are paying for is the software which is dependable, stable and light years ahead of Microsoft. How much time do you waste on your windows computer that you could put to better use making money in the market? How many times has your windows computer crashed at a critical time during market hours? Whether its with computers, medicine, dentistry or investing sites like PSW, you get what you pay for, and nothing more. And that’s all I have to say about that.
    http://www.youtube.com/results

  10. shadowfax

    To all a big thank you, I worked on hardware and software until about 1985 when I said no more I need a life not 6 more airplane rides this week. I bought the new computer because I thought the old HP was dead. Since then I bought a $25 USB to any Hard drive adapter from Tigerdirect and have fixed that HP and a Dell, no Parts. I also bought an IMAC and parrells to run my CAD programs, After a week on the phone with Apple, I mean at least 50 hours, I decided they were not capable of running Windows, hotmail sucked, and Safari would not stream anything. I took the 15% discount and bought this Window7 supped up with duel core prossessor and max memory. It has never crashed like Phil XP was once a week, It runs 4 to 5 screens every day no problem. I can’t email  to web sites sometimes and other than from Phil can’t get a link from email to whoever like facbook. The 64 bit issue is solving itself but can’t change default programs, I also run 32 bit at the same time. My other complaint is XP will show all sreens on the taskbar, 7 stacks them requiring more moves and cllicks. No crashes and I can design analog transistor and tube circuts. I’m not giving up but still hope someone knows of an answer book. Can’ wait for cloud computing as all of todays issues did not exist with mainframe and dumb terminals. Max time allowed in 1975 was 1.5 seconds, wouldn’t that be nice to get back to that? Also 7 loads in about 30 seconds 10 times faster than XP! Keep waiting for now Phil, we need you too much!

  11. japarikh

    Phil,
      I asked about adjustments to my TBT positions a week ago and have not had time to implement what you had suggested. Would you be able to take another look at give me some advice? Here is what I have:
    5 Jan 42 call (long) at $7.95, now $3.95
    5 Sept 44 call (long) at $5.64, now $1.60
    5 Sept 46 put (short) at $2.46, now $6.80

  12. hanna5

     Phil. Great article. What do you think about MOS here?

  13. shadowfax

    jbur,
    I have heard that Apple claim for years and that is why I bought one in March. I also know the man that invented the ipod. He used to design and sell tube amps which I still do. I can’t listen to ipods , the sound sucks wind but Victor is a winner and quite wealthy now. I have 2 preamps and 2 poweramps he designed. I have a couple of my own, 3 under construction and a phono preamp. Apple will not run parrelles with XP and not my cad programs either way. Windows 7 has not crashed in 2 months not at all like 98, ME, and XP. I refused to try Vista. Like you or way more than you I hate computers which is why I quit working on them in the 80′s. I will warn you that Apple’s get spyware and malware now, they were never amune only ignored until they got big enough to bother with, Apple is #2 capitalized industry past microsoft and they are not ready for what is happening, be careful browsing, the one I returned was infected in 8 days and that was strike 3 your out not price.

  14. shadowfax

    Phil and anyone reading my rambeling today,
          I believe based on my expert knowledge that the best chips in the world are made in the USA, In the 50s and 60s we made some of the best tubes and transistors, we invented the bomb. TQNT makes computer sound and I bought their stock because it is used in the ipad and other computers. KLIC makes the equipment that makes chips and they are doing quite well, I have options on them. Apples are made in China, the workers are suisiding there from preasure, Apple’s markup is excessive therefore excessive profits and I will not buy them because 1 the ipad is a joke, 2 the bigest always fall the most, 3 Apple know advises anti-everything software, 4 their products are all overpriced 5 the iphone is now loosing to competitors, some people don’t like touch pads, and forcing people to AT&T that doesn’t work here and most of Wyoming, G3 ipads have the same problem, and 6 ipods are causing hearing problems in young people. I will wait till Phil says short them and then jump onto that. I also found other serios flaws during my 8 days with the IMAC. If you want an extra good deal on an iphone shop the classifieds around hear and other places wher they don’t work after X-mas.

  15. kickstand

    Phil, why do you use the levered ETFs when u construct yoiur disaster scenario call/put spreads?  By my calculations, when u baseline your exposure for the premium you pay/receive, I don’t see the advantage for any of them.   Throw in the fact FINRA adjusts your maintenance requirements by 2x and 3x to offset the higher exposure, u have wider bid ask spreads, and there’s the potential tracking error.   Am I missing something?  I would appreciate your input. thx.  

  16. Phil

    Good morning!

    Futures turned very ugly overnight, bottoming out into Asia’s close, an hour into Europe’s open around 4:30.  Seems like an overreaction to me and $72 is a good entry on oil futures with tight stops below the line.

    IMac/Craig – If one of my side computers go, that’s what I’d get for a replacement.  My Dell has the 30" Apple Cinema display (and the AAPL video card) in the center with 2 Dell 21" monitors on the sides of it.  The 30" display holds 3 open full-page IE’s on it with some overlap but very easy to flip back and forth and my TOS is in the full 21" on the right while my left screen is for Charts and reading stuff. 

    Pharma/Flip – I don’t think it’s an overall great bet on the sector.   I like MRK and PFE for the dividens and their size will keep them going for a long time but mainly I like the equipment, labs and disposable supplies in the Health Care Sector.  As to our illustrious Presidents – too many people digging around them to hide things I would think. 

    Income/Kevin – Well certainly if you have $250K to put aside, it should be realitvely easy to make $1-2K a month selling options.  It’s not about committing the $250K, it’s about having the margin to make the sales and, worst case, having the cash available to turn your sold put into a long-term investment if the trade goes bad.   In other words (and for example) I can sell 50 UNG Oct $8 puts for $1.22 ($6,100) for a net of $7,390 in margin, using just a very small part of the buying power available to you.  Because of hurricane season, I see almost no way I can end up having UNG put to me but, if it is, I have to be prepared to own 5,000 shares at net $6.78 ($33,900).  If Nat gas does fall, I see the 2012 $6 puts are $1 so what I’m really looking at is possibly taking a .22 loss on the roll and ending up with 5,000 shares at net $5 for $25K in 2012 but that’s that portion of my money tied up for 18 months and "out of action" for earning me money.  

    You can’t afford too many screw-ups like that BUT, if you ALSO have $1M in a long-term retirement account, you can deal with problems like this by selling one of your toppy positions from that portfolio and buying the UNG over these and turning it into a long-term hold.  We can go more into it when I have time but I hope you get the idea – as long as you only sell puts on stocks that you don’t mind making a part of your retirement portfolio long-term, then you can sell with little fear as your worst-case is you have a good entry and your best case is you generate (in this example) $1,300 a month off a net $7,400 commitment so you only need to run 3 or 4 at a time to do very nicely.

    TBT/Japar – You’ll have to remind me today as they could be $2 down at the open but, generally, I’d look to roll the long to lower strikes if you intend to stick with them. 

    MOS/Hanna – I only like MON and they can’t catch a break in that space.  I think MOS, POT et al all suffer from a similar fate as farmers cut corners. 

    AAPL/Shadow – So I guess you are not a fan?  8-)

    ETFs/Kickstand – It’s mainly about who will pay us the most premium.  Due to their ultra-volatility, the leveraged ETFs tend to pay us more for selling options.  Since we generally go for sensible hedges that are fairly fault-tolerant, we are able to take advantage of the volatility.  If you are buying puts and calls, it would be foolish but as sellers of them, we simply go where we get paid the most. 

  17. 8800

    Phil,
    Good morning – albeit a better one outside the mkt than in.
    Given recent macro developments globally, do you have a feeling about future SNP levels, 1, 3 and 12 months out with  what level of confidence about those expectations?
    Also, could you share your preference for current specific dnside hedges for near and long term based on above expected levels?
    Thanks,
    Ken (newbie)

  18. dmankoff

    HI, Phil, i’m long a 37 call and short the 40 call on TBT for September.
    any adjustment you can suggest on this move down?
    and
    any trade you like on AAPL?  keeps moving higher…

  19. ban2

     Morning Phil
    selling RIG puts here for a trade  too suicidal??  I know you liked them over BP
    thanx
    N

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