Janet Yellen Gets Tied Up

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Includes: CSCO, INTC, MO, MRK, SPY, WMB, WPZ
by: George Acs

Summary

Janet Yellen is facing an interest rate decision, yet has little freedom of choice as that decision is forthcoming.

With Christine Lagarde recommending that the Federal Reserve not raise interest rates this year and with a strong Employment Situation Report, Yellen is faced with balancing advice against facts.

Bond traders moved interest rates to their highest levels in 7 months in anticipation of an FOMC decision coming sooner than many had recently come to expect.

In statistics, there is a concept of "degrees of freedom."

It is the number of independent ways by which a dynamic system can move, without violating any constraint imposed upon it.

For example, if you know that you have a dollar in change distributed between your 2 pockets and one of those pockets has $0.75 in it, there aren't too many possibilities for what the other pocket will contain. That's an example of a single degree of freedom. However, as soon as you throw a third pocket into the mix there are an additional 25 permutations possible, as a second degree of freedom opens up lots of possibilities.

Poor Janet Yellen. So few possibilities and so many constraints tying her up.

Since US interest rates can't go much lower, she doesn't have too much choice in their direction. She has no choice but to raise rates.

Eventually.

Her only freedom is in the timing of action. If you're married to data, as is now being professed, she has to balance the opinion of a well regarded economist with the latest employment data release and the prospects of upwardly revised GDP statistics.

Her degrees of freedom situation got a little muddled this past week as Christine Lagarde, who is the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, urged her to stay in line with the European Central Bank and keep interest rates low. At the same time the Employment Situation Report, released on Friday morning came in with job growth stronger than expected.

As the popular song once asked "should I stay or should I go?" is the kind of decision facing Janet Yellen right now and regardless of her decision, it's going to be second guessed to death and much more likely to receive blame than credit for whatever near term or longer term outcomes there may be.

Doing nothing may be the safest decision, although this week the US bond market made its feelings known as rates moved in the only direction that makes sense.

That's because suddenly the data has shifted the discussion back to the potential for the announcement of an interest rate increase as early as June 17th, the date of the next FOMC Statement release. That's happened within days of the discussion having been about whether that increase would even occur in 2015.

With competing pressures of being out of synchrony with the direction of rates in the rest of the world and the reality of an economy that now may actually be growing at a stronger rate than had been believed, inaction would seem to be the obvious path to take.

Being tied up makes it easier to fail to act, but I'm betting that if any one can break free of the duct tape constraints that seek to bind her, it will be Janet Yellen.

The expression became long ago hackneyed, but while we all await a decision of interest rates, I suspect that Janet Yellen will break out of the box. As Bernanke before her, she will put her own twist on our narrow and limited expectations, leaving Christine Lagarde to realize that being late to the game is not a good reason to heed advice.

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

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) had a really terrible week last week as the news that everyone had come to expect regarding its intentions with Altera (NASDAQ:ALTR) became confirmed.

The funny part, although not if you're an Intel shareholder, is that when rumors first surfaced earlier in the year, the initial response was positive for Intel's share price.

Not so much, though, as rumors became news and suddenly every one started questioning intel's strategy with the acquisition.

As weak as the overall market was this past week, it was well ahead of Intel, which lost nearly 8%. That drop in price has made the shares once again appealing, as its CEO, Brian Krzanich, shouldn't strike anyone as being frivolous, particularly as it comes to operations, having previously served as Intel's COO. I would guess that Krzanich can sense a strategic fit better than most at a company where he has spent nearly 33 years of his life.

With Chuck Robbins set to start soon as the new CEO at Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), more executive level changes were announced this past week, as shares also well under-performed the S&P 500 for the week.

Although nowhere as severe as Intel's weekly decline, the drop in Cisco's shares bring them closer to an appealing price once again, as its ex-dividend data nears in a few weeks.

While shares are still a little higher priced than I might like to initiate a position, its recent weakness hasn't had very much basis. Robbins' new team, even though comprised of many Cisco insiders, is likely to hit the ground running with strategic initiatives and will probably be more focused on near term victories, than was outgoing CEO John Chambers.

I think that creates short term opportunities even as Robbins may pull out varied accounting tricks in the waning days of June in order to make the next quarter's earnings pale in comparison to the subsequent quarter, thereby creating a positive early image of his leadership.

Altria (NYSE:MO) and Merck (NYSE:MRK) are both ex-dividend this week and both offer a very attractive dividend. While one seeks to improve people's lives through better chemistry, the other takes a different path.

Tobacco companies faced some challenges last week as the market didn't react well to news of a $15 billion Canadian court penalty. Nor did it react well to news that a lawsuit regarding package labeling against the FDA was being dropped. A nearly 6% drop for the week is enough evidence of market displeasure.

Those drops helped to bring shares near some support levels just in time for the dividend and surprisingly good option premiums. While I don't take any particular delight in the products or in the consequences of their use, there has never been a very good time to bet against their continued ability to withstand challenges.

That ability to withstand challenges is one of the signs of a great company and Merck falls into that category, as well.

Most often, companies like Altria and Merck, that have better than average dividend yields and whose dividend is about the size of a strike price unit or larger, in this case $0.50, are difficult to double dip in an effort to have some of the share price reduction brought about by going ex-dividend get subsidized by the option premium. However, with pharmaceutical companies being in play of late, the option premiums are higher than they have been for quite some time, even during an ex-dividend week.

Merck is rarely a candidate for a double dip dividend trade, but may be so this coming week, having also concluded a very weak past few trading days that highlighted a number of drug study trial results.

Finally, Williams Company (NYSE:WMB) is also ex-dividend this week having fallen sharply following the very positive reception it received after announcing the planned purchase of the remainder of its pipeline business, Williams Partners (NYSE:WPZ).

With a nearly 10% decline in the past month since that announcement, as with both Altria and Merck, it offers a better than average dividend yield and a dividend that is greater than its strike price units. However, it too, is now offering an option premium that allows for double dipping that is so often now possible or feasible.

However, as with Altria, the recent decline seems to have been over-exaggerated and rather than selling an in the money call in an attempt to double dip on dividend and premium, I think that i may be inclined to forgo some of that double dipping in exchange for capital gains on the underlying shares by using out of the money options.

Either way, it's an exercise in greed, but I like having the increased degree of freedom to do so.

Traditional Stocks: Cisco, Intel

Momentum Stocks: none

Double-Dip Dividend: Altria (6/11), Williams Company (6/10), Merck (6/11)

Premiums Enhanced by Earnings: none

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 INTC.

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 in CSCO, INTC, MO, MRK and WMB