Beware Of Premature Market Contractions

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Includes: ABBV, AIG, AMZN, BAC, CAT, FAST, FCX, GILD, MET, YUM
by: George Acs

Summary

The comfort of a pattern of small corrections over the past two years has recently been disrupted.

Earnings season beginning anew next week may serve as a stimulant to propel the market forward, particularly if lower energy costs begin to translate into profits and positive guidance.

Too much stimulation, however, may have paradoxical effects bringing a return of a "good news is bad news" outlook.

Somewhere buried deep in my basement is a 40-year old copy of the medical school textbook "Rapid Interpretation of EKG's."

After a recent bout wearing a Holter Monitor that picked up 3000 "premature ventricular contractions", I wasn't the slightest bit interested in finding and dusting off that copy to refresh my memory, not having had any interest nearly 40 years ago, either.

All I really cared about was what the clinical consequence of those premature depolarizations of the heart's ventricle meant for me and any dreams I still harbored of climbing Mount Everest.

Somewhere in the abscesses of my mind I actually did recall the circumstances in which they could be significant and also recalled that I never aspired to climb Mount Everest.

But it doesn't take too much to identify a premature ventricular contraction, even if the closest you ever got to medical school was taking a class on Chaucer in junior college.

Most people can recognize simple patterns and symmetry. Our mind is actually finely attuned to seeing breaks in patterns and assessing even subtle asymmetries, even while we may not be aware. So often when looking askance at something that just seems to be "funny looking," but you can't quite put your finger on what it is that bothers you, it turns out to be that lack of symmetry and the lack of something appearing where you expect it to appear.

So it's probably not too difficult to identify where this (non-life threatening) premature ventricular contraction (PVC) is occurring.

While stock charts don't necessarily have the same kind of patterns and predictability of an EKG, patterns aren't that unheard of and there has certainly been a pattern seen over the past two years, as so many have waited for the classic 10% correction.

What they have instead seen is a kind of periodicity that has brought about a "mini-correction," on the order of 5%, every two months or so.

The quick 5% decline seen in mid-December was right on schedule after having had the same in mid-October, although the latter one almost reached that 10% level on an intra-day basis.

But earlier this week we experienced something unusual. There seemed to be a Premature Market Contraction (NYSE:PMC), occurring well before the next scheduled mini-correction.

You may have noticed it earlier this week.

The question that may abound, especially following Friday's return to the sharp market declines seen earlier in the week is just how clinically important those declines, coming so soon and in such magnitude, are in the near term.

In situations that impact upon the heart's rhythm, there may be any number of management approaches, including medication, implantation of pacemakers and lifestyle changes.

The market's sudden deviation from its recently normal rhythm may lend itself to similar management alternatives.

With earnings season beginning once again this week, it may certainly serve to jump start the market's continuing climb higher. That may especially be the case if we begin to see some tangible evidence that decreasing energy prices have already begun trickling down into the consumer sector. While better than expected earnings could provide the stimulus to move higher, rosy guidance, also related to a continuing benefit from decreased energy costs, could be the real boost looking forward.

Of course, in a nervous market, that kind of good news could also have a paradoxical effect, as too much of a good thing may be just the kind of data that the FOMC is looking for before deciding to finally increase interest rates.

By the same token, sometimes it may be a good thing to avoid some other stimulants, such as hyper-caffeinated momentum stocks that may be particularly at risk when the framework supporting them may be suspect.

This week, having seen 5 successive days of triple digit moves, particularly given the context of outsized higher moves tending to occur in bear market environments, and having witnessed two recent "V-Shaped" corrections in close proximity, I'd say that it may be time to reassess risk exposure and take it easier on your heart.

Or at least on my heart.

As usual, the week's potential stock selections are classified as being in Traditional, Double Dip Dividend, Momentum or "PEE" categories.

Dividends may be just the medication that's needed to help get through a period of uncertainty, and the coming week offers many of those opportunities, although even within the week's upcoming dividend stocks there may be some heightened uncertainty.

Those ex-dividend stocks that I'm considering this week are AbbVie (NYSE:ABBV), Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX), Whole Foods (WFM) and YUM Brands (NYSE:YUM).

AbbVie is one of those stocks that has been in the news more recently than may have been envisioned when it was spun off from its parent, Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT), both of which are ex-dividend this week.

AbbVie has been most notably in the news for having offered an alternative to Gilead's (NASDAQ:GILD) product for the treatment of Hepatitis C. Regardless of the relative merits of one product over another, the endorsement of AbbVie's product due to its lower cost caused some short-term consternation among Gilead shareholders.

AbbVie is now trading off from its recent highs, offers attractive option premiums and a nice dividend. That combination, despite its upward trajectory over the past 3 months, makes it worth some consideration, especially if your portfolio is sensitized to the whims of commodities.

Caterpillar is finally moving in the direction that Jim Chanos very publicly pronounced it would, some 18 months ago. There isn't too much question that its core health is adversely impacted as economic expansion and infrastructure projects slow, as it approaches a 20% decline in the past 2 months.

That decline takes us just a little bit above the level at which I last owned shares, and its upcoming dividend this week may provide the impetus to open a position. I suppose that if one's time frame has no limitation any thesis may find itself playing out, for Chanos' sake, but for a short time frame trade the combination of premium and dividend at a price that hasn't been seen in about a year seems compelling.

It has now been precisely a year since the last time I purchased shares of YUM Brands and it is right where I last left it. Too bad, because one of the hallmarks of an ideal stock for a covered option position is no net movement, but still traveling over a wide price range.

YUM Brands fits that to a tee, as it is continually the recipient of investor jitteriness over the slowing Chinese economy and food safety scares that take its stock on some regular roller coaster rides.

I'm often drawn to YUM Brands in advance of its ex-dividend date and this week is no different, it combines a nice premium, competitive dividend and plenty of excitement. While I could sometimes do without the excitement, I think my heart and, certainly the option premiums, thrive on the various inputs that create that excitement, but at the end of the day seem to have no lasting impact.

Whole Foods also goes ex-dividend this week, and while its dividend isn't exactly the kind that's worthy of being chased, shares seem to be comfortable at the new level reached after the most recent earnings. That level, though, simply represents a level from which shares plummeted after a succession of disappointing earnings that coincided with the height of the company's national expansion and the polar vortex of 2014.

I think that shares will continue to climb heading back to the level to which they were before dropping to the current level more than a year ago.

For that reason, while I usually like using near-the-money or in-the-money weekly options when trying to capture the dividend, I'm considering an out-of-the-money February 2015 monthly option in consideration of Whole Foods' February 11th earnings announcement date.

I don't usually follow interest rates or 10-year Treasury notes very carefully, other than to be aware that concerns about interest rate hikes have occupied many for the entirety of Janet Yellen's tenure as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

With the 10-year Treasury now sitting below 2%, that has recently served as a signal for the stock market to begin a climb higher. Beyond that, however, declining interest rates have also taken shares of MetLife (NYSE:MET) temporarily lower, as it can thrive relatively more in an elevated interest rate environment.

When that environment will be upon us is certainly a topic of great discussion, but with continuing jobs growth, as evidenced by this past week's Employment Situation Report, and prospects of increased consumer spending made possible by their energy dividend, I think MetLife stock has a bright future.

Also faring relatively poorly in a decreasing rate environment has been AIG (NYSE:AIG) and it too, along with MetLife, is poised to move higher along with interest rates.

Once a very frequent holding, I've not owned shares since the departure of Robert Benmosche, who I believe deserves considerable respect for his role in steering AIG in the years after the financial meltdown.

In the meantime, I look at AIG, in an increasing rate environment as easily being able to surpass its 52-week high and would consider covering only a portion of any holding in an effort to also benefit from share price advances.

Fastenal (NASDAQ:FAST) isn't a very exciting company, but it is one that I really like owning, especially at its current price. Like so many others that I like, it trades in a relatively narrow range, but often has paroxysms of movement when earnings are announced, or during the occasional "earnings warnings" announcement.

It announces earnings this week and could easily see some decline, although it does have a habit of warning of such disappointing numbers a few weeks before earnings.

Having only monthly options available, but with this being the final week of the January 2015 option cycle, one could effectively sell a weekly option or sell a weekly put rather than executing a buy/write.

However, with an upcoming dividend early in the February 2015 cycle, I would be inclined to consider a purchase of shares and sale of the February calls and then buckle up for the possible ride, which is made easier knowing that Fastenal can supply you with the buckles and any other tools, supplies or gadgets you may need to contribute to national economic growth, as Fastenal is a good reflection on all kinds of construction activity.

Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) also reports earnings this week, and I unexpectedly found myself in ownership of shares last week, being unable to resist the purchase in the face of what seemed to be an unwarranted period of weakness in the financial sector and specifically among large banks.

Just as unexpectedly was the decline it took in Friday's trading that caused me to rollover shares that I thought had been destined for assignment, as my preference would have been for that assignment and the possibility of selling puts in advance of earnings.

Now, with shares back at the same price that I liked it just last week, its premiums are enhanced this week due to earnings. In this case, if considering adding to the position, I would likely do so by selling puts. However, unlike many other situations where I would prefer not to take assignment and would seek to avoid doing so by rolling over the puts, I wouldn't mind taking assignment and then turning around to sell calls on a long position.

Finally, while it may make some sense to stay away from momentum kind of stocks, Freeport-McMoRan, which goes ex-dividend this week, may fall into the category of being paradoxically just the thing for what may be ailing a portfolio.

Just as stimulants can sometimes have such paradoxical effects, such as in the management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a stock that has interests in both besieged metals, such as copper and gold, in addition to energy exploration may be just the thing at a time when weakness in both of those areas has occurred simultaneously and has now become well established.

Freeport-McMoRan will actually report earnings the week after next and that will present its own additional risk going forward, but I think that the news will not be quite as bad as many may expect, particularly as there is some good news associated with declining energy prices, as they represent the greatest costs associated with mining efforts.

I've suffered through some much more expensive lots of Freeport-McMoRan for the past 2 years and have almost always owned shares over the past 10 years, even during that brief period of time in which the dividend was suspended.

As surely as commodity prices are known to be cyclical in nature, at some point Freeport will be on the right end of climbs in the price of its underlying resources. If both energy and metals can turn higher as concurrently as they turned lower, these shares should perform exceptionally well.

After all, they've already shown that they can perform exceptionally poorly, and sometimes it's just an issue of a simple point of inflection to go from one extreme to the next.

Traditional Stocks: AIG, MetLife

Momentum Stocks: none

Double Dip Dividend: AbbVie (1/13), Caterpillar (1/15), Freeport McMoRan (1/13), Whole Foods (1/14), YUM Brands (1/14)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: Bank of America (1/15 AM), Fastenal (1/15 AM)

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.

Disclosure: The author is long BAC, FCX, WFM.

The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: I may buy/add shares or sell puts in ABBV, AIG, BAC, CAT, FAST, FCX, MET, WFM and YUM