After three straight weeks of losses to end the trading week, including deep losses the past two weeks, everyone was scratching their heads to recall the last time a single month had fared so poorly.
What those mounting losses accomplished was to create a clear vision of what awaited investors as the past week was to begin.
Instead, it was nice to finish on an up note to everyone's confusion.
When you think you are seeing things most clearly is when you should begin having doubts.
Who saw a two day 350 point gain coming, unless they had bothered to realize that this week was featuring an Employment Situation Report? The one saving grace we have is that for the past 18 months you could count on a market rally to greet the employment news, regardless of whether the news met, exceeded or fell short of expectations.
That's clarity. It's confusing, but it's a rare sense of clarity that comes from being so successful in its ability to predict an outcome that itself is based upon human behavior.
As the week began with a 325 point loss in the DJIA, voices started bypassing talk of a 10% correction and started uttering thoughts of a 15-20% correction. 10% was a bygone conclusion. At that point most everyone agreed that it was very clear that we were finally being faced with the "healthy" correction that had been so long overdue.
When in the middle of that correction nothing really feels very healthy about it, but when people have such certainty about things it's hard to imagine that they might be wrong. With further downside seen by the best and brightest, we were about to get healthier than our portfolios might be able to withstand.
It was absolutely amazing how clearly everyone was able to see the future. What made things even more ominous and sustaining their view was the impending Employment Situation Report due at the end of the week. Following last month's abysmal numbers, ostensibly related to horrid weather across the country, there wasn't too much reason to expect much in the way of an improvement this time around. Besides, the Nikkei and Russian stock markets had just dipped below the 10% threshold that many define as a market correction and as we're continually reminded, it's an inter-connected world these days. It wasn't really a question of "whether," it was a matter of "when?"
Then there was all that talk of how high the volatility was getting, even though it had a hard time even getting to October 2013 levels, much less matching historical heights. As everyone knows, volatility comes along with declining markets so the cycle was being put in place for the only outcome possible.
After Monday's close the future was clear. Crystal clear.
Instead, the week ended with an 0.8% gain in the S&P 500 despite that plunge on Monday and a highly significant drop in volatility. The market responded to a disappointing Employment Situation Report with what logically or even using the "good news is bad news" kind of logic should not have been the case.
Now, with a week that started by confirming the road to correction, we were left with a week that supported the idea that the market is resistant to a classic correction. Instead of the near term future of the markets being crystal clear, we are left beginning this coming week with more confusion than is normally the case.
If it's true that the market needs clarity in order to propel forward this shouldn't be the week to commit yourself. However, the only thing that's really clear about our notions is that they're often without basis so the only reasonable advice is to do as in all weeks - look for situational opportunities that can be exploited without regard to what is going on in the rest of the world.
As usual, the week's potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum and "PEE" categories this week (see details).
If you're looking for certainty, or at least a company that has taken steps to diminish uncertainty, Microsoft (MSFT) is the one. With the announcement of the appointment of Satya Nadella, an insider, to be its new CEO, shares did exactly what the experts said it wouldn't do. Not too long ago the overwhelming consensus was that the appointment of an outsider, such as Alan Mullaly would drive shares forward, while an insider would send shares tumbling into the 20s.
Microsoft simply stayed on its path with the news of an inside candidate taking the reins. Regardless of its critics, Microsoft's strategy is more coherent than it gets credit for and this leadership decision was a quantum leap forward, certainly far more important than discussions of screen size. With this level of certainty also comes the certainty of a dividend and attractive option premiums, making Microsoft a perennial favorite in a covered option strategy.
The antithesis of certainty may be found in the smallest of the sectors. With the tumult in pricing and contracts being promulgated by T-Mobile (TMUS) and its rebel CEO John Legere, there's no doubt that the margins of all wireless providers is being threatened. Verizon (VZ) has already seen its share price make an initial response to those threats and has shown resilience even in the face of a declining market, as well. Although the next ex-dividend date is still relatively far away, there is a reason this is a favorite among buy and hold investors. As long as it continues to trade in a defined range, this is a position that I wouldn't mind holding for a while and collecting option premiums and the occasional dividend.
Lowe's (LOW) is always considered an also ran in the home improvement business and some recent disappointing home sales news has trickled down to Lowe's shares. While it does report earnings during the first week of the March 2014 option cycle, I think there is some near term opportunity at its current lower price to see some share appreciation in addition to collecting premiums. However, I wouldn't mind being out of my current shares prior to its scheduled earnings report.
Among those going ex-dividend this week are ConocoPhillips (COP), International Paper (IP) and Eli Lilly (LLY). In the past month I've owned all three concurrently and would be willing to do so again. While International Paper has outperformed the S&P 500 since the most recent market decline two weeks ago, it has also traded fairly rangebound over the past year and is now at the mid-point of that range. That makes it at a reasonable entry point.
Conoco Phillips appears to be at a good entry point simply by virtue of a nearly 12% decline from its recent high point which includes a 5% drop since the market's own decline. With earnings out of the way, particularly as they have been somewhat disappointing for big oil and with an end in sight for the weather that has interfered with operations, shares are poised for recovery. The premiums and dividend make it easier to wait.
Eli Lilly is down about 5% from its recent high and I believe is the next due for its turn at a little run higher as the major pharmaceutical companies often alternate with one another. With Pfizer (PFE) and Merck (MRK) having recently taken those honors, it's time for Eli Lilly to get back in the short-term lead, as it is for recent also ran Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) that was lost to assignment this past week and needs a replacement, preferably one offering a dividend.
Zillow (Z) reports earnings this week. In its short history as a publicly traded company it has had the ability to consistently beat analysts' estimates and then usually see shares fall as earnings were released. That kind of double-barreled consistency warrants some consideration this week as the option market is implying an 11% move this week. While that is possible, there is still an opportunity to generate a 1% ROI for the week if the share price falls by anything less than 16%.
Coach is a frequent candidate for consideration and I generally like it more when it's being maligned. After last week's blow-out earnings report by Michael Kors (KORS), the obvious next thought becomes how their earnings are coming at the expense of Coach. While there may be truth to that and has been the conventional wisdom for nearly 2 years, Coach has been able to find a very comfortable trading range and has been able to significantly increase its dividend in each of the past 4 years in time for the second quarter distribution. Its combination of premiums, dividends and price stability, despite occasional swings, makes it worthy of consistent consideration.
I've been waiting for a while for another opportunity to add shares of Morgan Stanley. Down nearly 12% in the past 3 weeks may be the right opportunity, particularly as some European stability may be at hand following the European Central Bank's decision to continue accommodation and provide some stimulus to the continent, where Morgan Stanley has interests, particularly being subject to "net counterparty exposure." Its ride higher has been sustained and for those looking at such things, its lows have been consistently higher and higher, making it a technician's delight. I don't really know about such things and charts certainly aren't known for their clarity being validated, but its option premiums do compel me as do thoughts of a dividend increase that it is increasingly in a position to institute.
Finally, if you're looking for certainty, you don't have to look any further than at Chesapeake Energy (CHK) which announced a significant decrease in upcoming capital expenditures, which sent shares tumbling on the announcement. Presumably, it takes money to make money in the gas drilling business so the news wasn't taken very well by investors. A very significant increase in option premiums early in the week suggested that some significant news was expected and it certainly came, with some residual uncertainty remaining in this week's premiums. For those with some daring this may represent the first challenge since the days of Aubrey McClendon and may also represent an opportunity for shareholder Carl Icahn to enter the equation in a more activist manner.
Traditional Stocks: Lowe's, Microsoft, Verizon
Momentum Stocks: Chesapeake Energy, Coach, Morgan Stanley,
Double Dip Dividend: ConocoPhillips (ex-div 2/13), International Paper (ex-div 2/12), Eli Lilly (ex-div 2/12)
Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Zillow (2/12 PM)
Remember, these are just guidelines for the coming week. The above selections may become actionable, most often coupling a share purchase with call option sales or the sale of covered put contracts, in adjustment to and consideration of market movements. The overriding objective is to create a healthy income stream for the week with reduction of trading risk.
Additional disclosure: I may buy, add shares or sell puts in BMY, CHK, COH, COP, IP, LLY, LOW, MS, MSFT, VZ and Z