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!

CEOs: Just Run Your Companies

Did anyone catch the Cyberonics (CYBX) conference call yesterday? I would never have noticed it as I don’t follow the stock, but continuous coverage on CNBC got me wanting to mention it. The company’s CEO went ballistic after the stock got crushed on news that the Senate is investigating the FDA’s decision to recommend approval of the company’s product after initially suggesting it be rejected.

Now I don’t know the details of the story, nor do I really care, but I couldn’t help notice how irrate the CEO was on the call from clips I heard on CNBC. He blasted short sellers for supposedly starting rumors and was infuriated that people were contacting the FDA to learn more about possible pressures applied to get the CYBX device approved.

After screaming at people on the conference call, the CEO spent more valuable time writing emails to CNBC criticizing their reporting of the story throughout the day. With a very important product under review by the FDA, doesn’t he have more important things to do with his time than yell and scream at analysts, short sellers, and business reporters?

If you are a CEO, your job is to run your company. How well you do will determine where your stock trades. News reporters and short sellers do not determine stock prices over time. How much money Cyberonics earns does. Sure, a false rumor might send your share price down a dollar or two in a day. However, why be infuriated by this? As a CEO, it shouldn’t matter if your stock is $30 on Monday, $28 on Wednesday, and $31 on Friday. Leave that for traders to worry about.

It’s amazing how many CEOs hate short sellers and spend so much of their time trying to discredit them (Overstock.com’s Patrick Byrne comes to mind as a perfect example). If you want them to feel pain, fine, just hit your numbers and those betting against you will lose their shirt. That seems like the best gameplan for those who are doubting you and your company.

Just do your job well, run your company correctly, and the stock price will take care of itself.

A Tale of Two Buybacks

There have been a lot of big name investors in the news recently, including the trio of Warren Buffett, Kirk Kerkorian, and Carl Icahn. The media tends to lump all three men into the same group of people investors should pay great attention to. After all, when Buffett disclosed he bought Anheuser Busch (BUD) stock weeks ago, the stock jumped from $45 to $48 in a single day. Kerkorian issued a tender offer for General Motors (GM) shares that resulted in the largest one day gain in the stock in more than a decade.

Icahn perhaps deserves less attention. His track record is not as solid as Buffett or Kerkorian, and Wall Street evidently realizes that his shareholder activism efforts with the likes of Blockbuster (BBI) don’t always add any value for stock owners. In fact, when Icahn recently released a list of stocks in which he purchased stakes in recent weeks, most of the stocks barely budged.

Today I will focus on two stock buybacks, one of which was precipitated by Icahn’s discontent with the management of Kerr-McGee (KMG), and the other non-Icahn related buyback that resulted from a huge cash stash at Motorola (MOT). As you can see from the chart of today’s trading below, the stocks have reacted differently to the news of their respective buybacks.

First, the good news. Motorola has $6 billion of cash on its balance sheet currently, net of debt. CEO Ed Zander today announced that the company will buy back up to $4 billion in stock, about 10% of the total outstanding shares. Both Motorola and Nokia (NOK) have huge cash balances that have contributed to Peridot’s extreme interest in the stocks over the last year. Investors should always pay attention to balance sheets, in addition to earnings per share. When companies are flush with cash, they will usually do something good with it eventually, just be patient. MOT shares have been up between 3 and 4 percent today.

As you can see, Kerr-McGee shares are faring much worse today, falling by as much as 8 percent. Here’s a quick synopsis of the story there.

Icahn, unhappy with the management of KMG (despite the stock’s rise from $50 to $80 with the last 12 months), threatened last month to attempt to get elected to the company’s Board of Directors. Icahn agreed to abandon the effort after Kerr-McGee launched a “Dutch Auction” tender offer for 46.7 million shares. The move would cost $3.97 billion based on a purchase price of $85 for each KMG share, in order to avoid a proxy battle with Icahn.

With KMG shares trading at $74, Icahn basically has forced Kerr-McGee to buyback 29% of its total shares outstanding for $85 apiece. Today, the stock opened at $69. How exactly is buying back stock at $85, when your share price is $69, good for shareholders? That’s a $16 per share premium to the price on the open market. Icahn evidently thinks that is a good investment of nearly $4 billion for the company.

You know what makes it even worse? KMG doesn’t even have the $4 billion to buy the stock with, so they are borrowing the money. The company secured a $5.5 billion credit facility to fund the purchases. So, in addition to the $16 per share premium it is paying (an extra $747 million above market value) Kerr-McGee also has to pay interest on the entire amount.

Something tells me Warren Buffett would never force a company he owned a significant stake in to throw away money like that, let alone money they needed to borrow to do so.