By Mark D. Bern, CPA CFA
Let me begin by pointing to a detailed explanation of the strategy that can be found in my previous article. As you will see in the conclusion of this article, you may be able to collect in excess of nine percent annually in cash while holding Colgate-Palmolive (CL). If you find the returns mentioned in this article intriguing, I suggest that you take the time to understand the full strategy by reading that prior article.
First, why did I choose Colgate Palmolive today? CL is in the consumer staples sector, a very tantalizing group of stocks for many reasons. One thing is that this sector is considered a defensive investment because no matter what happens to the economy, everyone continues to eat, drink, shower, brush their teeth, feed pets, etc. When things get really bad some may switch to generic labels but most stay with products that they have used for years and trust. My favorite company in this group is Procter and Gamble (PG). Unfortunately, for this series I have not been able to find reasonably priced options for P&G and am unwilling to stretch the rules far enough to make it work. I’ll keep watching, though, because you never know when something may happen that creates a little more volatility in any one stock which, in turn, often leads to higher premiums that make the strategy work. I have several other stocks in the sector that I really like for various reasons: besides CL, there are Conagra (GAG), Coca Cola (KO), Pepsi (PEP), General Mills (GIS), Molson Coors (TAP), and Walgreens (WAG). This made the decision a difficult one. There are factors that favor each company on the list, but for today CL stood out as the best value overall for me. I will probably write about another from the group as soon as tomorrow.
The one drawback that presented itself for CL was its debt level which, at 159 percent debt to equity is slightly higher than the industry average. But that is down from 300 percent as recently as 2004. It seems management is managing to bring debt levels down and will likely be able to get the ratio below the industry average within another year or two. The track record is reassuring for me, but this is something each investor must weigh and stay within their own comfort level. The company’s earnings in 2010 were adversely affected by devaluation in Venezuela. But, with operations in more than 200 countries and territories around the globe, events such as this tend to be muted by the geographic diversity of the company. Going forward earnings growth should average in the high single-digit range. The company is well positioned to maintain its domestic market share while increasing market share abroad. Readers of my previous submissions will recognize the importance I place on rising dividends and growth in foreign sales. These two factors, as detailed below, were instrumental in my choosing CL for this report.
CL pays a dividend of 2.6 percent currently and has raised its dividend in each of the last 48 consecutive years. Dividend increases over the past five years have averaged 13 percent. The dividend was raised by 10 percent on February 24, 2011, and I expect the company to continue the trend of rising dividends well into the future, with a strong likelihood of increases of about seven percent each year on average over the next five years.
CL derives 75 percent of its revenue from outside the U. S. The company is well positioned to take advantage of economic growth where ever it may occur anywhere on the globe. Oral care is a major growth area in developing areas of the world such as Asia and Africa, where populations are enormous and just beginning to learn about this important practice.
The company has a profit margin of 15 percent and its return on equity is 82 percent. Margins are slightly better than the industry average while ROE is significantly better than industry averages. The company has a price-earnings ratio of 18.3 at its current price, down from 19.1 earlier this month. The company’s stock tends to rebound better than the overall market and is well ahead of its 2007 peak. When you add the expected growth in earnings of 9 percent to the current dividend of 2.6 percent you end up with an expected return of over 11 percent compounded annually. Not bad, but I think we can do better.
If you could increase your cash flow to eight to ten percent per year instead of just 2.6 percent, would it make waiting for the eventual appreciation worthwhile? Let me show you how.
The latest closing prices on CL stock and selected options (September 29, 2011 - I always use closing prices to be fair) were as follows:
Stock price: $89.54
November Put; $82.50 strike $2.19
November Call; $97.50 strike $1.11
The assumption in these articles is that we want to own the stock of the subject company (CL) but would prefer to buy it at a lower price and collect some income on our cash while we wait for our target price to materialize. If the stock offers a good value at its current price of $89.54, then it should offer an even better value at a price that is eight to ten percent lower. So, we sell one November $82.50 Put for $2.19 and collect the premium of $219, or $210 net after a $9 commission (assumes that we use a discount broker). Thus far we have 2.3 percent return on our cash for less than two months. This equates to an annualized rate of return of 14.1 percent. However, since we cannot assume that the opportunity to sell an option will be available every month, or 12 times per year, I propose that we make an adjustment to the methodology used to calculate the annualized rate of return. Instead of assuming that we can lock in that return for all 12 months, let’s assume that we can only find reasonably priced options that cover ten months out of each year when dealing with shorter term options (less than three months to expiration). The reason is quite simple. Even though most of the stocks we’ll discuss in my articles will have options available nearly every calendar month, some months do not have adequate trade volume to assure good trades. Also, every stock used in my articles will have options trading at least quarterly with adequate volume. Therefore, we can assume that if we sell options with expirations of three months or greater that we can do so consistently throughout the full twelve calendar months, while shorter durations will require an “adjustment.”
Simply put, if we sell an option that expires in one month, we will assume the rate is available for ten months or simply times the premium by ten to annualize our rate of return. Similarly, if we sell an option that expires in two months, we will make the same assumption and times the premium by five to annualize our rate of return. This way, if we have errors, they should be on the conservative side, meaning that we may actually do better in the real world rather than worse.
Applying this method to the $210 net premium collected, the annualized rate of return would be 11.7 percent. I don’t think I will get much argument about that sort of return on cash sitting in an account while we wait for a bargain. Where else can you get a 11.7 percent annual rate on cash for a two-month holding period?
But, of course, we want to own the stock so if it drops down below our strike price of $82.50 we could end up being put the stock at that price. At that point our cost basis would be $80.31. I like CL better at this price than at $89.54. That’s a discount from the current price of 10 percent. I like buying stuff on sale, especially investments.
Now, let’s assume that we already own 100 shares of CL stock and would like to increase the yield. We do this by selling cover call options. Since we own the stock in our account, to be entitled to the IRS treatment I mentioned above, we must sell the calls in the same account and be “covered.”
We sell one November $97.50 Call at a premium of $1.11 per share, or $111. Again, we have to subtract the commission on the transaction of $9 (we have to use a discount broker to make this work well) and end up with a net of $102. Using the annualizing method I explain in an earlier paragraph, this equates to an annual return of 5.7 percent. Now don’t forget that if you own the stock you are also receiving the dividend and CL’s dividend yield is currently 2.6 percent. Add the two yields together and we now receive 8.3 percent yield on the stock. And this is if we bought it at the current price of $89.54. Just imagine what the return will be when we buy the stock on sale using the put option strategy! Or follow along over the next two years (or at least a few months) to see what the real-time results would be.
Watch for the update on CL about this time of the month during November. The title will be something like “Enhanced Income Strategy: CL Update #1.”
If this hasn’t made sense and you need a better explanation of the details of my strategy please refer to the original article above from September 21.
I have chosen to keep all the subsequent articles shorter by referring back to this article for details and explanation.
One last item that I would like to add to this article that is different from my previous articles. Some of the comments to my previous articles have been extremely enthusiastic. I am pleased. Yet, I also believe that I must include a warning in all my subsequent articles to make sure that everyone understands that there are risks to every strategy, including this one.
First, as has been pointed out in the comment threads, there is always the possibility that the selling puts strategy may not result in the purchase of the desired stock in a rapidly rising market. An investor could miss most, if not all, of a run-up. It is doubtful that the full run will be missed, however, since the market (including most stocks) correct by 10 percent or more usually once or more per year. For that reason it is likely that the investor will purchase the stock at some point during a bull market, but they still may miss some portion of it (perhaps a large portion, especially in a bounce off a major bottom). On the positive side of this equation is the fact that as most major bottoms occur there is usually a day of capitulation. Capitulation days are generally heavy down days on which, if one has sold puts outstanding, the investor stands a good chance of being put the stock (purchasing at the bottom). There are no promises of that happening, but the odds are better under this strategy than following one's gut emotions. One other thing that helps offset the possible regret of missing a stock at a good price is that the seller of the puts will continue to earn a decent return on their cash (generally 8-10 percent on average) annually while they wait. Granted, that is not as good as hitting a 30 percent gain in a good year, but it sure beats sitting in a money market and earning zip.
Second, as has also been pointed out in the comment threads, it is possible to end up buying a stock when the stock market tumbles and having to ride it out to the bottom. If an investor is buying a stock in a company the investor wants want to hold for the long term, at least with this strategy he or she will never buy at the very top. After all, we’re selling puts at a price of about ten percent below the price when the put option is sold. In addition, the investor has the opportunity to sell calls and, including dividends, receive an average of 8-10 percent in cash payments per year while waiting for the stock to rebound. If we have done our homework in picking a good company at a price that represents a good value, then the likelihood of a rebound is very strong. The only way to end up losing money is by selling the stock. If you hold, you’re getting paid well to do so and eventually you’ll be back in the money. If the investor had purchased the stock outright at the top of the market and the market fell 50 percent, he or she would be down 50 percent at the bottom and need the stock to double just to get even. If he is selling calls all the way down, assuming the average length on most bear markets is about 17-19 months, the investor should have collected somewhere in the vicinity of 15 percent along the way, putting him down 25 percent at the bottom. Remember, the investor bought at ten percent below the top, using puts, so he or she couldn’t lose the full 50 percent in any event. Now the investor only needs half as much of a rebound to get even.
The third scenario is the worst case. If an investor sells a put near the top and ends up with the stock at a 10 percent discount from the high and rides all the way down to the bottom, collecting dividends and call premiums along the way. Now the investor is down 25 percent and ends up selling a call that gets exercised near the bottom and the stock is called away. But remember, he is selling calls that will net about ten percent above the stock price at the time the option is sold, therefore he should be selling at no less than ten percent off the bottom. That would result in a total of a 15 percent loss on the total of the transactions. Now compare that with most alternatives other than picking the tops and bottoms, which no one can do consistently.
The point is, while this isn’t the most lucrative strategy, it does bear less risk of loss than most alternatives. By taking most of the emotion out of the decision process, an investor improves the chances of producing consistently higher returns. And that is the whole point. I hope this explanation helps cure some of the over-enthusiasm. This is no get rich quick scheme. It is simply a systematic strategy that can help investors achieve market-beating returns over the long term.