First Quarter Comes to a Close

For me it’s very tough to be disappointed in any way with the market’s performance in the first quarter. I have been pleasantly surprised at how well stocks have acted throughout 2006 thus far. The S&P 500 index rose by 3.7% for the period, even as 10-year bond yields jumped substantially, from 4.40% to 4.85%.

It was an excellent backdrop for stock pickers, and the performance of my 2006 Select List echoes those sentiments. The 10 stock list has posted a gain of 12.2% since the beginning of the year. The group was led by 4 stocks that jumped more than 30% each, including Lionsgate (LGF), the movie studio behind Crash, the Oscar winner for Best Picture.

Heading into the second quarter, my outlook remains as it was on January 1st, cautiously optimistic. I still think we are set for mid-to-high single digit returns on the S&P 500 in 2006. Earnings should continue to be strong, but without multiple expansion, huge gains in the indexes are unlikely. Low double digit gains are not out of the question, but we would need many things to fall into place, including a Fed that stops raising rates soon and oil prices that are subdued. Possible, but not probable in my view.

Given that we got nearly a 4% gain in Q1, I can’t help but think we are overdue for a market correction. We haven’t seen a 10 percent drop in more than 3 years, which is very unusual. Market momentum is very strong here and first quarter earnings reports this month will likely be solid, but as we enter a seasonally weaker period for stocks, I am still expecting a pullback even if it doesn’t seem like the market wants to go down right now.

That said, there are still many individual stocks that are attractive. As share prices have rallied the list of undervalued names has undoubtedly gotten smaller, but values can still be found by those who look hard enough. And I would suggest holding some cash because when a correction comes, the list of bargains will once again expand.

Best of luck to all of you in the second quarter.

Shareholders Sue No Matter What

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Judge OKs lawsuit by those who lost money during Kmart takeover

A federal judge in Chicago has given the green light to plaintiffs who charge that Sears Chairman Edward S. Lampert and former Sears CEO Alan Lacy failed to tell shareholders they were plotting Kmart’s takeover of Sears Roebuck and Co.

The plaintiffs making the complaint sold their Sears stock between Sept. 19 and Nov. 16, 2004, and lost out on a spike in Sears’ share price that occurred when Kmart and Sears announced Nov. 17, 2004, that Kmart would acquire Sears.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman ruled that the aggrieved shareholders cited sufficient facts so they can try to prove that Lampert and Lacy violated securities laws by failing to fully disclose their negotiations.

The shareholders allege that Sears, with Lacy’s knowledge, was repurchasing shares at what they contend was an artificially low price, effectively increasing the interest of Lampert’s hedge fund and making Kmart’s takeover of Sears easier.

Now not only do we have shareholders who sue when stocks they own take a tumble, we also have those who sue when stocks go up after they sell? Lawsuits in this country are really getting out of hand. Let’s go through a few reasons why this story is ridiculous.

First of all, the headline doesn’t even make sense. You can’t “lose money” on a stock you no longer own. Missing out on profits and losing money are not the same thing. If you thought about buying a Powerball ticket when the jackpot hit $200 million but decided not to, you didn’t lose out on a chance to win the lottery. You simply chose not to play.

The basis of the lawsuit is that Kmart management failed to disclose they were in merger negotiations. What company in their right mind would disclose this? As soon as news of such talks hit, Sears stock would have rallied, raising the price Kmart would need to pay. This would hurt Kmart shareholders, not help them, making the deal less attractive financially. Arguing somebody broke securities law by not disclosing buyout negotiations, which could easily have broken down, is preposterous.

They go on to say that Sears was repurchasing stock at low levels to make Kmart’s takeover easier. There would be no reason for Sears to do this, it would not have a meaningful effect. Sears stock was cheap. That explains why Sears was buying back shares and why Kmart was interested in a business combination. That is just a good use of capital by both sides. Shareholders of both Sears and Kmart should be happy about that. In fact, the reason the stocks soared once news of the merger broke was because it was perceived as such a good move. Both retailers were struggling and this was seen as a way to get smaller, leaner, and more profitable.

Current Sears Holdings shareholders need not be worried. This Chicago Sun-Times article is the second I’ve read in recent days that sharply criticizes and questions the current retailing strategy of Edward Lampert and company. As long as people are still negative and focused on retail strategy and not economic value, I’m happy to be a shareholder of Sears Holdings.

WSJ Exposure and a Stock Pick

Thanks to Kevin Delaney and the rest of the team at The Wall Street Journal for featuring me yesterday in a front page story about my trading in and views on Google (GOOG). It certainly made for a fun and eventful day, most notably a full inbox and a phone ringing off the hook. If you would like to read the story, it can be accessed through wsj.com in addition to March 2nd’s hard copy. I also have an electronic copy if you aren’t a WSJ online subcriber, so email me if you’d like a copy.

On to the market. I have been pleasantly surprised how well the market is acting so far this year. I am tempted to take some money off the table, but the momentum is clearly strong right now. Hopefully nothing will get in the way of that. What do readers think? Feel free to comment.

As for specific stocks, I would suggest investors take a look at Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF). The stock was down $6 yesterday after weaker-than-expected same store sales for February. A lot of hot money was in the stock, so the decline may have been more than normal. Keep in mind that SSS were still up more than 5% for the month, and February is the second least important month of the year for retailers. The stock looks very cheap down here under $60 per share.

Ford Axes Quarterly and Annual Guidance

Investors will likely view Ford’s decision today to refrain from offering future financial guidance as a negative. After all, it could very well indicate that the company either has no idea how their financials will look, or that they have little confidence in meeting the objectives they will set.

Even if true, companies should join Ford and realize that it’s too difficult and unproductive to accurately predict future profits, especially if you are managing a business for long-term success, not to simply meet investors’ short-term goals.

Wall Street might not like it, but now Ford could be better able to make the right decisions to get back on track. This is not an endorsement of the stock, as I have not looked closely at it, just a pat on the back for getting rid of guidance that benefits nobody except the research analysts who rely on it to do the bulk of their jobs.

Closing the Books on 2005

PERIDOT’S PERFORMANCE

I would like to take a moment and thank all of Peridot Capital’s clients for their business in 2005. This past year was a very successful one despite the fact that the S&P 500 index only returned 3.0% for the year. Peridot was able to book average gains of 10.7% for our equity+fixed income accounts and we look forward to another profitable year in 2006. Shortly I will be mailing out our Annual Letter and will be posting a copy here online as well.

THE BLOG’S FIRST 15 MONTHS

This blog has now been in operation for 15 months and I would like to thank all of our readers for your support in this endeavor. I recently completed an analysis of my investment opinions that have been posted here since late 2004. I was curious to see how they have performed compared with the market as a whole.

Although actively managed accounts should exceed the investment advice given here (mainly because most of my picks on this blog are never updated when an outlook has shifted, whereas active portfolio managers take immediate action as news develops) I was still hoping to find that the analysis provides some value to our readers. Sure enough, it did.

From November 2004 through December 2005, investment recommendations from this site have averaged an 11% gain. The S&P 500, meanwhile, has risen only 7% during that time. The spreadsheet I created for the analysis can be found here. Since many stocks have been mentioned multiple times on this site, I only used the initial mention to calculate performance figures. While it would have boosted the numbers to count every positive mention of Google shares throughout the time period, I don’t feel like that is an accurate measure of how well our “average” pick (or pan) performed.

PERIDOT’S 2006 SELECT LIST

As mentioned late last year, I will be publishing a 2006 Select list shortly (hopefully it will be ready on Tuesday). The list will comprise 10 stocks Peridot feels will outperform in 2006. To maintain a fully diversified group, one company will be chosen from each of the 10 major sectors of the S&P 500; technology, telecommunications, financial services, consumer discretionary, consumer staples, healthcare products, energy, materials, industrials, and utilities.

The list, to be made available for purchase online via PayPal, will cost $20.06 and will be emailed to you directly in Adobe Acrobat format after payment has been received. I will make a blog entry with a link for those of you who are interested when the list is completed.
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Thanks again to both clients and readers of this blog for your support of Peridot Capital Management and have a very prosperous 2006.

Regards,

Chad

Peridot Book Club

For those looking for a good stock market read, I suggest Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel’s “The Future For Investors.” Siegel’s follow-up to “Stocks for the Long Run” (published the 1994) offers a very interesting and compelling outlook for stock markets throughout the world.

Not only are potential challenges addressed (selling pressures due to retiring baby boomers and the rise of China and India as global economic powerhouses), but Siegel also presents characteristics of past market winners and losers, and how they will be affected in coming decades.

While he offers portfolio asset allocation advice toward the end of the book, with which some will agree and others will prefer to deviate from, I think the real value of the text is in the quantitative evidence Siegel offers from his extensive research and his outlook on the rest of the 21st century. This definitely will help investors think about their investment portfolios in a valuable and comprehensive way.
All in all, a must read for those interested in hearing opinions of a brilliant professor who called the top of the Nasdaq market bubble months before the collapse began.

Despite Cash Hoards, Companies Aren’t Paying Out

With cash reserves of U.S. public companies sitting at all-time record highs, investors might think dividend payments would be booming as well. Combined with the relatively new 15% dividend income tax rate, investors should be reaping the rewards of record cash payouts. However, the average S&P 500 company is paying less than 2% annually out to its shareholders.

Why does the average large cap stock pay out less than 2% in dividends? Well as we’ve seen this year, M&A activity has been red hot. Corporate profit margins are at cycle highs, so further cost savings have to be squeezed out via merger synergies. So far in 2005, deals have been running rampant on Wall Street. One need just look at the recent earnings report from Goldman Sachs (GS) to see evidence of that.

In addition to mergers and acquisitions, the rise of stock option compensation over the last two decades certainly accounts for the reduction in dividend yields. In order to minimize the equity dilution from option issuances, companies need to instate massive share repurchase programs. The money to do so comes straight from free cash flow that would otherwise be widely available for cash payouts to shareholders.

Throughout history, stock market returns have come from the combination of equity price appreciation and dividend payments. Yields that have averaged about 4 percent historically, along with 6 percent annual growth in earnings, explains the 10 percent average annual return from equities since the 1800’s.

With 2% dividends and peak margins upon us, it’s no wonder that some suspect future stock market returns, say during the next decade or so, will fail to hit the magic 10 percent mark. Even if somehow peak margins can be sustained, which is unlikely, investors are only looking at 8 percent annual returns from stock indices in the near to intermediate term. While that kind of performance pales in comparison to the great bull market of 1982-1999, it will still mark the highest return of any asset class, so abandoning the stock market because of it makes little sense.

The Buyouts Mount

After Washington Mutual’s (WM) purchase of Providian and Bank of America’s (BAC) recent buy of MBNA, it was widely expected that smaller credit card issuer Metris (MXT) would eventually get a similar takeover bid. In fact, readers of this blog were alerted to the potential of Metris even before those deals were announced.

Below is an excerpt from our post “Metris Continues its Turnaround” posted in December 2004:

“With some analysts still bearish on the company’s future, combined with a staggering 24% of the float sold short, there are many reasons to think that Metris shares will continue their march higher in 2005. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not too late to get in, even at the current $11 price tag.”

Today’s $15 per share cash bid by HSBC closes the book on the Metris story. Fortunately though, there are still excellent values in the financial services area, making reallocation of that capital a very opportunistic redeployment. Investors who want to stay in the credit card space should turn their attention to long-time Peridot favorite Capital One Financial (COF).

An Interesting Take on Conference Calls

I’ve written here before that if I were running a public company I wouldn’t give quarterly financial guidance, but MicroStrategy (MSTR) is taking the focus on long-term business management even further (see below). Could this be a red flag signaling poor financial results in the future that the company would like to avoid having to talk about? There is no way to know, but I would not jump to such a conclusion without other information to back up that assumption. There is no doubt some investors will see this as a negative and bet against the stock because of it, but with 30% short interest already, that seems like a risky bet to make.

From a MicroStrategy press release issued July 21st:

“MicroStrategy Incorporated (MSTR), a leading worldwide provider of business intelligence software, expects to issue a press release on July 28, 2005, to announce its financial results for the second quarter of 2005.

MicroStrategy has recently reviewed its practice of holding a conference call to discuss its quarterly financial results. The Company believes that it is in the best interests of its shareholders to focus on long-term financial performance, which allows the management team to more effectively run operations and build long-term shareholder value. Accordingly, consistent with our decision at the beginning of this year to discontinue providing revenue or earnings guidance, the Company has also decided that it will no longer hold conference calls following the release of its quarterly financial results.”

Side note: MicroStrategy’s Q1 conference call from April 28th is quite entertaining, and might shed some light as to why that call was the last quarterly call the company hosted. Feel free to draw your own opinions and share them with me, as I think it’s an interesting topic of discussion.

Goodbye Takeovers, Hello Takeunders

Rewind the clock back to March 2000. Do you remember BroadVision (BVSN), that high-flying e-commerce software company that traded at a split-adjusted $840 a share? Maybe you even owned the stock back then. Well, let’s hope you don’t own it anymore.

In one of the worst examples ever seen of acting in the interest of shareholders, BroadVision agreed Tuesday to be acquired by a private equity firm for 84 cents per share. Nevermind that is 99.9 percent below the stock’s all-time high. It’s 36 percent below the $1.32 the stock was trading at on Monday!