Seagate Adopts Baffling Policy on Financial Guidance

I am sitting here listening to the second quarter conference call hosted by Seagate Technology (STX), the world’s leading provider of hard disk drives for the consumer electronics industry, and I just had to write a post with the audio going in the background. Seagate CEO Bill Watkins has just announced that his company is changing their policy on company guidance.

I have written on this blog before that financial guidance is very overrated. Many companies have abandoned giving guidance completely (kudos to them) and others have at least stopped giving quarterly projections. So, I was expecting STX to either cease quarterly guidance and give only annual projections, or to halt guidance completely. Wrong on both counts!

Seagate will now give only quarterly guidance. Are they kidding? The whole point of stopping quarterly guidance is to focus management on the long term and not put them in a situation where they might take actions just to hit a number in the short term. Now they are embracing three-month projections?

I understand them not wanting to give out annual projections. The disk drive business is very hard to predict, as it is largely a commoditized market. Supply and demand, and therefore pricing, is tough to gauge over long periods of time. Essentially, STX management is saying they have no idea what they will earn in fiscal 2008 (which began on July 1st).

If you are going to ditch giving guidance, then stop giving guidance! It seems very strange that they say they are focused on the long term, but yet are still going to predict sales and profits every three months. They should have just stopped guidance altogether.

Full Disclosure: Some Peridot clients have positions in STX, but those positions are under review

How Relevant is Dow 14,000?

The move from Dow 12,000 to Dow 14,000 has been pretty stunning. How relevant is that index though? We can argue that it is heavily weighted towards mega cap stocks, and that is true, but so is the S&P 500 since it is market cap weighted. Some of you may not be aware of this, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average is not market cap weighted. Instead, it is share price weighted.

This serves to make its moves pretty much irrelevant in terms of gauging the market’s overall health. A one dollar move in Boeing (BA) has the same effect as a one dollar move in Microsoft (MSFT), even though Boeing trades over $100 per share and MSFT shares sell for $30 each.

What is the end result of this pricing method for the Dow? Boeing has more than 3 times as much influence as Microsoft does, and the same pattern holds for any other Dow component. In fact, materials and industrials account for a whopping 35% of the Dow Jones Industrial Average due to their high share prices (which may not be shocking given the name of the index).

Those two groups have been leading the market higher, so it is not surprising that the Dow has been soaring. On the other hand, financial services firms have been lagging this year, but they only account for 14% of the Dow, more than 30% less than their weight in the S&P 500. Dow 14,000 is a nice round number, but it really doesn’t tell us a lot about the market as a whole, only certain sectors that dominate its composition.

For a 40% Premium, How Could Hilton Say “No” To Blackstone?

Rumors of a large private equity deal in the lodging industry had been running rampant recently and late Tuesday we learned that Blackstone Group (BX) plans to acquire Hilton Hotels (HLT) for $18.5 billion plus the assumption of debt. Hilton shareholders should be elated, as they are getting a 40% premium for their shares.

The M&A boom we are seeing right now is clearly propelling the market higher. Firms like Blackstone have billions of dollars to put to work and they can’t raise more money until what they have now gets spent. As a result, you see prices like this being paid for Hilton. For a 40% premium, they had to say “yes” to Blackstone. If the offer was 20%, maybe they pass, but not 40%.

And this is a big reason why the market has been so good lately. Private equity firms need to spend their cash hoards and aren’t afraid to overbid if it means getting a deal done. The companies getting bought out jump, helping the market. The stocks considered next in line for a bid get a pop on the rumors and speculation, and short sellers have to scramble to cover any positions that could possibly get a bid. You can’t afford to risk being short a name like Hilton before a Blackstone bid comes along.

Liquidity will dry up at some point, deal flow will lighten up, and market returns might be subdued, but there is really no way to know when exactly that will happen. It is clear the private equity firms themselves think we are in the late innings, or else we would not have seen Blackstone go public and KKR file for an IPO just a few hours ago. Until the game is over though, there is plenty of liquidity to keep stock prices fairly high.

Investors should simply focus on values in the marketplace. Maybe one of your companies gets a bid, maybe not, but it would be wise to make sure you are comfortable with your investments even if they remain independent. Unless you think you are the ultimate market timer, I would avoid the private equity IPO market, including Blackstone, KKR, as well as the others that will surely follow suit as long as the new issue market can support them.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at the time of writing

How Should Hedge Funds and Private Equity Be Taxed?

It seems like Congress goes into attack mode anytime somebody is making a lot of money. In some cases I agree with our elected officials and in other cases their arguments make little sense if you look at the big picture. Take the oil companies for instance. We all know the industry is swimming in money. If Congress aims to repeal subsidies these firms get from the federal government, I have a hard time opposing the idea. Our country does not need to subsidize our oil companies. However, if you propose some kind of excess profits tax simply because oil prices are high, that is ridiculous. We live in a market economy and markets are cyclical. You can’t tax companies during boom times just because you feel like it.

Anyway, the topic du jour is the taxation of hedge funds and private equity funds. Again, we have a group of wealthy people who are making billions and paying the same (if not less) taxes as the average worker. To figure out where I fall on issues like these, I try not to bring politics into it at all. To me, it’s logic-driven reasoning that should rule the day and help form an opinion.

I haven’t been following the issue that closely, but the sticking point is the fact that hedge fund and private equity fund general partners split investment profits with their limited partners. The investment managers serve as general partners and collect 20% of the profits from the investments they make, which is often taxed as long-term capital gains, at a rate of 15%. The fact that someone can make $100 million and only pay 15% in taxes is evidently upsetting a lot of people in Washington.

At first blush it might seem like the 15% tax rate makes sense. If a hedge fund has $100 million in assets and earns 10%, there is $10 million in profit to be divided up. Assuming an 80/20 split, the manager makes $2 million and the limited partners share $8 million based on their ownership percentages. Since the $10 million in profit was the result of capital gains, then it is easy to see why some feel the 15% tax is fair.

There is one difference though, that seems very important. The whole point of having a low capital gains tax rate (relative to income tax rates) is to incentivize people to invest in businesses and put their capital at risk. Such actions are the life blood of our capitalist system. In return for risking your own money by investing in other ventures that need funding, you are rewarded with a lower tax rate on any profits you earn.

The problem is, hedge fund managers aren’t risking their own capital a lot of the time. They are pooling money from their investors and managing it for them. Sure, they don’t earn anything unless they produce positive returns, but if they lose money, they don’t lose as much, if at all, because they typically have less capital at risk, if they invest in the fund at all. This seems like the most logical reason why one would be against the 15% tax rate for hedge fund managers.

Now, it’s true that most fund managers have invested some of their own money in the funds they manage. Perhaps what the tax law needs to say is, when you have your own money at risk, you can claim profits as a capital gain, but when your investors are simply sharing a portion of the profit earned on their capital, in return for your management ability, then that income should be treated as a management fee, and therefore taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

It’s a tough issue for sure. I just hope the law going forward reflects reality, meaning that if you get a tax break for capital gains, it better actually be your capital that was put at risk in order to produce the gains in the first place. A fair compromise in my eyes would be to allow managers to pay 15% on the portion that is their own capital at risk, and ordinary income tax rates on fees earned on limited partner’s assets that are paid out to the general partner. That way, the whole point of the 15% capital gains tax rate (reward risk taking with lower taxes) is preserved.

What do you think?

Tip: When Engaging in Insider Trading, Be Discreet!

Evidently a Hong Kong couple thought the rest of the world was asleep. Listen to what they did before their brokerage accounts were frozen, preventing them from pocketing an estimated $8.2 million. Tell me if you think their broker, Merrill Lynch (MER), might catch on that something was a bit suspicious.

In early April the couple’s account was worth $1.2 million, consisting of mostly fixed income and commodity investments, along with a small position in Intel (INTC) stock. All of the sudden, they wire $10 million into their account and borrow $5 million on margin to buy 415,000 shares of Dow Jones (DJ) for an average price of $35.14 per share.

Just days later Dow Jones gets a $60 cash offer from News Corp (NWS) and the couple tries to sell all $23 million worth, netting a profit of $8 million. How on earth do people really think Merrill Lynch isn’t going to notice this? Regulators often do investigations after M&A deals are announced to try and uncover illegal activity, but this case was handed to them on a silver platter.

It will be interesting to see what happens to these people. I hope they get the book thrown at them. Perhaps a copy of the insider trading laws would be a good start.

Full Disclosure: Long Intel $10 2009 LEAPs at the time of writing

Dow Winning Streak Longest in 80 Years

It has truly been a breathtaking run, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising in 24 of 27 sessions, the longest streak since eight decades ago in 1927. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s four point drop snapped the streak. How should investors play this? Many are stuck between two prevailing ideas, either ride the momentum to ensure not missing it, or wait for a pullback and buy on the dip. The problem is, there aren’t any dips. We got a 7 percent correction a couple months ago but it was so short-lived that many didn’t have time to get back on the train before it left the station again.

I am sitting on an above-average amount of cash right now, due to an overbought market that I am uninterested in chasing, coupled with a seasonal inflow of deposits. Since I’m a value investor, not a momentum trader, I am content with sitting on cash and waiting for an excellent opportunity. With the broad market rallying so strongly, such a dip might only occur in select names, as opposed to a widespread sell-off that makes many stocks compelling.

Why not just get my money in when short term momentum is strong? There are far fewer bargains now than there were six months or a year ago. Although I might miss some upside in the short term, due to above-average cash positions during a long winning streak, I still believe that buying dips and not rallies will prove to be more profitable when we look back a year from now.

The result could be lagging returns in coming days and weeks, but when we get another pullback and I have the ammunition to jump at true bargains, those purchases will more than likely make up the lost ground and plenty more over the intermediate to longer term.

Market Correction Comes and Goes Much Like Last Year

Did you notice the S&P 500 hit a new high today? It seems this market corrects much more fast and furious than in prior periods, but the corresponding snap back is just as quick. If you blink, you might miss it. Just last month we were spooked by a 400-point one-day drop in the Dow after a huge sell-off in the China market. Chinese stocks rebounded to make new highs and now the U.S. market has done the same. The 2006 correction was very similar, short and swift. In fact, compare the two charts:

Bears will undoubtedly be looking for a failed breakout and another leg down. Despite the fact that the market has been pricing in an interest rate cut, and yet no rate cut seems imminent, stock prices keep chugging along. I am in the camp that believes the Fed is on hold and won’t cut rates due to a perceived credit crunch. Things would have to get meaningfully worse on that front for Bernanke to move, in my opinion.

Where does that leave stocks? I am still standing by my mid-to-high single digit return prediction for the U.S. market in 2007. Currently the S&P 500 is up 3.5% year-to-date. I just can’t get overly bullish with decelerating profits and a Fed that is still concerned with inflation. What would be the catalyst for a big move up? Earnings would have to really be strong. I’m not expecting a huge downward revision to current estimates, but this economy doesn’t seem to me to have much upside right now.

With what we know now, the market seems pretty fairly valued overall. I think we’ll trade between 14 and 16 times earnings in this environment. The strategists calling for P/E expansion I think are dreaming. Sure employment is high and interest rates and inflation are relatively low, but we still have single digit earnings growth and a slightly above-average valuation on the market. Hardly reason to be overly bullish.

In times like these, I’d suggest investing in cheap companies rather than a fairly valued market.

Use Sites Like Yahoo! Finance With Caution

Investors need to be careful when they do stock research on portal sites like Yahoo! Finance. If you enter a symbol in these sites you will quickly get a summary of where the stock trades. Not only do current prices show up, but also other metrics like market cap, earnings per share, P/E ratio, dividend yield, etc.

Keep in mind that oftentimes these numbers are wrong. They can include one-time items like EPS charges and gains, as well as special dividends. Also, the numbers aren’t always adjusted in a timely fashion to account for stock splits. The reason I wanted to point this out is because of an email I received summarizing the contents of this week’s Barron’s Magazine. It said the following:

ST Microelectronics, one of the top five global semiconductor companies, has been beset by troubles including flat sales, a struggle to cut costs, removing itself from the low-margin memory chip business, and competition from strong rivals like Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. Yet its 23x P/E multiple is double that of TI — and Technology Trader Bill Alpert “doesn’t get it.”

If you follow semiconductor stocks you might know that Texas Instruments does not trade at 11.5 times earnings. If it did it would be a screaming buy. I’m surprised that a writer for Barron’s would make a mistake like this, but as soon as I saw it, I knew exactly where Mr. Alpert got that number; Yahoo! Finance.

Sure enough, when you enter STM and TXN into the site, it shows trailing P/E’s for the two stocks as 23 and 11, respectively. However, if you dig deeper you will learn that the TXN number is way too low, likely due to one-time items that Yahoo! (or more accurately the supplier of its data) did not remove. The actual trailing P/E ratio for TXN is 18.5. No wonder Barron’s “doesn’t get” why TXN trades at half the multiple of STM, it really doesn’t.

Don’t make the same mistake Barron’s did. Always double check numbers on finance portal sites if they look a bit strange. Chances are they were miscalculated.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned

Comments on Tuesday’s 416 Point Drop

I know, I know… I write a stock market blog and have gone more than 24 hours without mentioning the fact that we got a 400 point drop in the Dow in a single day. Since I’m a long term investor and not a trader, the events of this week really aren’t all that important to me. I really didn’t do much of anything on Tuesday other than just sit back and watch the television screen after it became apparent that something was happening that we don’t see every day.

So, why haven’t I been very active in the market this week, and what do I think about the whole thing? First, while four hundred points sounds like a lot, in the whole grand scheme of things, it isn’t. From peak to trough, intraday, we saw a 5% drop in the S&P 500 over three trading days, which is pretty substantial, I admit. However, if you use closing prices it was less than that, and if you include Wednesday’s snap back rally, it was even less than that. Currently, the S&P 500 sits 3.7% below the highs it made in February. To me, this is much to do about nothing. If we had gotten a 3.7& drop over the course of a month or two, few people would think anything of it.

Let’s take a step back and put the drop in perspective. I began to get a little cautious when the S&P 500 crossed 1,400 because I thought the market was overbought. However, it kept going up, rising another 4% within weeks. Even with this 3.7% “correction” (I’m hesitant to say that it is over) the S&P 500 is still above 1,400. So, I don’t really think this pullback has been big enough to warrant putting every cent of cash to work. We just haven’t retraced enough of the gains for me to be optimistic that the smoke has cleared, hence I am not all too enthused about the market’s short to intermediate term prospects.

If the sell-off continues, which I suspect it might, then I will likely do some buying. I’d say we would need another 3% to 5% downside from here for me to get to that point. If we instead rally right back up to the highs, then my same overbought worries will persist and I will likely take some money off of the table to save up for a rainy day, or the next 400 point fiasco.

To sum up, I really don’t think too much has changed despite this week’s events. The market is still up a lot and even with the pullback, I still don’t think we are going to see double digit returns this year. It would still take a more typical market correction for me to get aggressive on the long side, so right now I’m really just focusing on individual companies in this environment.

Market Winning Streak Reaches 8 Months

Readers of this blog know I have cautious on the market since the S&P 500 broke through the 1,400 level, but stock prices have continued to rise (about 3 percent more, in fact). January marked the eighth straight month of gains, the longest monthly winning streak in a decade.

Traders will likely try and play the momentum until it fades, but keep in mind that rallies like this are rare, and will end. The first quarter is typically a seasonally strong one, leading up to tax day in April when 2006 IRA contributions are due. The old saying “sell in May and go away” usually spells trouble for the market in the summer, before the historically strong fourth quarter begins.

I can’t tell you how many more months we will see gains for the U.S. market, but the streak will end, so just make sure you are not blind-sided when it does. It is very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when things are going well, but they often will turn on a dime. We will see a pullback this year, and it will feel painful. Just be prepared for it, so you make rational decisions when the time for action is upon us.