It only seems fitting that one of the final big stories of the week that saw the Dow Jones eclipse its nearly 6 year old record high would be the latest reports of how individual banks performed on the most recent round of "stress tests." After all, it was the very same banks that created significant national stress through their equivalent of bad diet, lack of exercise and other behavioral actions.
Just as I know that certain foods are bad for me and that exercise is good, I'm certain that the banks knew that sooner or later their risky behavior would catch up with them. The difference is that when I had my heart attack, the effects were restricted to a relatively small group of people, and I didn't throw anyone out of their homes.
Having had a few stress tests over the years myself, I know that sometimes the anticipation of the results is its own stress test. But for some reason, I don't believe that the banks that were awaiting the results are facing the same concerns. Although I'm only grudgingly modifying my behavior, it's not clear to me that the banks are or at least can be counted to stay out of the potato chip bag when no one is looking.
Over the past year, I've held shares in Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), Citibank (NYSE:C), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), still currently holding the latter two. They have been, perhaps, the least stressful of my holdings the past year or so, but I must admit I was hoping that some among that group would just go and fail so that they could become a bit more reasonably priced and perhaps even drag the market down a bit. But in what was, instead, a perfect example of "buy on the rumor and sell on the news," success led to most stressed bank shares falling.
The other story is simply that of the market. Now that it's surpassed the 2007 highs, it just seems to go higher in a nonchalant manner, not giving any indication of what's really in the works. I've been convinced for the past two or three weeks that the market was headed lower and I've taken steps for a very mild Armageddon. Raising cash and using longer-term calls to cover positions seemed like a good idea, but the only thing missing was being correct in predicting the direction of the market. For what it's worth, I was much closer on the magnitude.
The employment numbers on Friday morning were simply good news icing on the cake and just added to my personal stress, which reflected a combination of over-exposure to stocks reacting to speculation on the Chinese economy and covered call positions in a climbing market.
Fortunately, the news of successful stress test results serves to reduce some of my stress and angst. With news that the major banking centers have enough capital to withstand severe stresses, you do have to wonder whether they will now loosen up a bit and start using that capital to heat up the economy. Not to beat a contrarian horse to death, but since it seems inevitable that lending has to resume as banking portfolios are reaching maturity, it also seems inevitable that the Federal Reserve's exit strategy is now in place.
For those that believe the Federal Reserve was the prime sponsor of the market's appreciation and for those who believe the market discounts into the future, that should only spell a market that has seen its highs. Sooner or later my theory has to be right.
I'm fine with that outcome and would think it wonderfully ironic if that reversal started on the anniversary of the market bottom on March 10, 2009.
But in the meantime, individual investment money still has to be put to work. Although I continue to have a negative outlook and ordinarily hedge my positions by selling options, the move into cash needs to be hedged as well - and what better way to hedge than with stocks?
Not just any stocks, but the boring kind, preferably dividend paying kind, while limiting exposure to more controversial positions. People have their own unique approaches to different markets. There's a time for small caps, a time for consumer defensive and a time for dividend paying companies. The real challenge is knowing what time it is.
As usual, this week's selections are categorized as being either Traditional, Momentum or Double Dip Dividend (see details). As earnings season is winding down, there appear to be no compelling earnings related trades in the coming week.
Although my preference would be for shares of Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) to approach $85, I'm heartened that it didn't follow Deere's (NYSE:DE) path last week. I purchased Deere and subsequently had it assigned, as it left Caterpillar behind, for the first time in 2013, as they had tracked one another fairly closely. With the latest "news du jour" about a Chinese government commitment to maintaining economic growth, there may be enough positive news to last a week, at which point I would be happy to see the shares assigned and cash redeployed elsewhere.
Along with assigned shares of Deere were shares of McGraw-Hill (MHP). Its price spiked a bit early in the week and then returned close enough to the strike price that a re-purchase, perhaps using the same strike price may be a reasonable and relatively low risk trade, if the market can maintain some stability.
There's barely a day that goes by that you don't hear some debate over the relative merits of Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Lowe's (NYSE:LOW). Home Depot happens to be ex-dividend this week and, unless it causes havoc with your need to be diversified, there's no reason that both companies can't be owned concurrently. Now that Lowe's offers weekly options, I've begun looking more frequently at its movement, not just during the final week of a monthly option cycle, which coincidentally we enter on Monday.
I rarely find good opportunity to purchase shares of Merck (NYSE:MRK). Its option premium is typically below the level that seems to offer a fair ROI. That's especially true when shares are about to go ex-dividend. However, this week looks more appealing and, after a quick look at the chart, there doesn't appear to be much more than a 5% downside relative to the overall market.
Macy's (NYSE:M) is another company that I've enjoyed purchasing to capture its dividend and then hold until shares are assigned. It's trading about 6% higher than when I last held shares three weeks ago and is currently in a high profile legal battle with J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP). There is certainly downside in the event of an adverse decision, however, it now appears as if the judge presiding over the case may hold some sway as he has suggested that the sides find a resolution. That would be far less likely to be draconian for any of the parties. The added bonuses are that Macy's is ex-dividend this week and it too has been added to the list of those companies offering weekly option contracts.
Cablevision (NYSE:CVC) is one of New York's least favorite companies. The distaste that people have for the company goes well beyond that which is normally directed at utilities and cable companies. There is animus director at the controlling family, the Dolans, that is unlike that seen elsewhere, as they have not always appeared to have shareholder interests on the list of things to consider. But, as long as they are paying a healthy dividend that is not known to be at risk, I can put aside any personal feelings.
Michael Kors (NYSE:KORS) isn't very consistent with the overall theme of staid, dividend paying stocks. After a nice earnings related trade a few weeks ago and rise in share price, Kors ran into a couple of self-made walls. First, it announced a secondary offering and then the founder, Michael Kors, announced a substantial sale of personal shares. It also may have more downside potential if you are one that likes looking at charts. However, from a consumer perspective, as far as retailers go, it is still "hot" and offers weekly options with appealing enough premiums for the risk. This turned out to be one of the few selections for which I couldn't wait until the following week and sent out a Trading Alert on Friday morning.
Seagate Technology (NASDAQ:STX) is another theme breaker. In the past I have had good fortune selling puts after price drops, which are frequent and sudden. The additional downside is that when drops do come, the recoveries are relatively slow, so patience may be required, as well as some tolerance for stress if selling puts and the price starts approaching the strike.
The final theme buster is Transocean (NYSE:RIG). Is there anything that Carl Icahn is not involved with these days? Transocean has been a frequent trading vehicle for me over the years. Happy when weekly options became available, I was disappointed a few weeks ago when they disappeared. It is part of the "Evil Troika" that I often own concurrently. If purchased, Transocean will once again join BP (NYSE:BP) in the portfolio, replacing Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) which was assigned on Friday. Transocean has re-instituted the dividend, although it will still be a few months until the first such payment. Icahn believes that it is too little and too late. I don't know how he would have the wherewithal to change the "too late" part, but most people would be happy with the proposed 4+% dividend.
Traditional Stocks: Caterpillar, Lowe's.
Momentum Stocks: McGraw-Hill, Michael Kors, Seagate Technology, Transocean.
Double Dip Dividend: Cablevision (ex-div 3/13), Home Depot (ex-div 3/12), Macy's (ex-div 3/13), Merck (ex-div 3/13).
Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. Some of the above selections may be sent to Option to Profit subscribers as actionable Trading Alerts, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts. Alerts are sent in adjustment to and consideration of market movements, in an attempt to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.
Some of the stocks mentioned in this article may be viewed for their past performance utilizing the Option to Profit strategy.
Disclosure: I am long BAC, BP, JCP, KORS, MS. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: I may initiate positions or sell puts in CAT, CVC, HD, LOW, M, MHP, MRK, RIG, STX