Fed Meeting & Dell’s Numbers

The recent rally has been long overdue. Going into tomorrow’s FOMC meeting, I would not be surprised to see a small rally into the decision, followed by a sell-off after the language of the statement shows no slowing of interest rate hikes on the horizon. So, if the Dow is up 30 or 40 in the morning, it might be a good idea to take some chips off the table for the afternoon.

That said, after seeing Dell’s surprise earnings warning tonight, a small rally tomorrow might be overly optimistic. Dell stock has been very weak lately, so a shortfall isn’t totally shocking, but disappointing for tech investors nonetheless. Although Peridot does not have a position in Dell right now, a move down to, or even below, $30 per share could be an attractive entry point based on the notion that a corporate upgrade cycle will start taking shape next year.

Martha Stewart Living Shares: You’re Fired!

Shares of Martha Stewart’s company were down as much as 20 percent today, after the company reported a pretty bad earnings report. I’ve been very bearish on MSO stock for quite some time now on this blog, but even at $17 and change, I can’t reverse course just yet. I just don’t see how they are going to make any meaningful amount of money, and without consistent profitability, MSO is not worth nearly $1 billion. Even a forward price-to-sales multiple of 3 times (a very rich valuation in my opinion) would mean the stock has further to fall from here.

It’s Decision Time for General Motors

It has been widely reported that General Motors (GM) is considering selling a huge stake in its financing division, GMAC, in an attempt to sure up its finances. With net income of $2.5 billion expected this year, GMAC is worth somewhere in the $30 billion range, so a majority stake would yield the leading domestic automaker a substantial sum of $15 billion.

What’s interesting is GM’s current value. At $28 per share, Wall Street is valuing the entire company at $16 billion. In essence, GM’s car business has an implied value of negative $14 billion. GMAC itself, therefore, is worth nearly $60 per share.

Maybe GM should try and sell a stake in its auto division, not GMAC. Such a move would substantiate a positive dollar value for the car business, and maybe get the stock price up. If GM could ever sell cars and trucks for a profit consistently, you can see why value investors like Kirk Kerkorian think the upside is tremendous.

Selling GMAC, though, could backfire if the $15 billion generated slowly disappears. Right now GMAC is the life support for GM. Perhaps that’s something they should hold on to in its entirety.

Bernanke Is A Solid Pick

Fortunately, President Bush decided not to throw us a curve ball today with his appointment of Ben Bernanke as the next Fed Chair. Recent history clearly had the market a bit spooked with Greenspan’s successor yet to be named, but a relief rally on Wall Street is underway. Bernanke really has only been in the spotlight in recent months, as potential replacements were discussed. Nonetheless, his credentials are strong and I think the market was hoping he’d be Bush’s top choice.

I still believe Greenspan wants to “finish what he started” and will likely bring Fed Funds up to 4.5% before he moves on in late January. If this view proves true, and Bernanke doesn’t continue boosting short-term rates, we could see a nice market rally back to the upper end of the trading range between now and sometime in the first quarter, as the rate hike barrage would be over. That would certainly be welcomed by investors, myself included.

Why I’m Not Selling Google

It isn’t an easy decision by any means, but when people are paying you to make investment decisions for them, you have to step up and figure things out.

Peridot has had a decent sized long position in Google for many months now. What makes the decision even more complicated today is that I decided to put on a trade yesterday to play the GOOG earnings release. I bought the Dec 300 Puts and the Dec 320 calls, with the stock at $308. The logic was that GOOG would probably move drastically after the Q3 report, but the direction of such a move was hardly assured. Fortunately, we did get a huge move after the blow-out report that has some analysts pegging the company’s 12-month price target at $450 per share.

Even with Google shares up $40 today, I’m not selling. Of course, my first instinct was to sell, given that my strategy is to buy when others are selling and sell when others are buying. After all, the only reason Peridot is long GOOG now is because the crowd was selling immensely when the company’s IPO lock-up period expired early this year, presenting an opportunity for those who prefer go against the consensus view.

My rationale for not selling today isn’t very complicated. Yesterday the company was trading at 41x next year’s estimates, a level investors were willing to pay based on an assumption of how fast they thought Google could grow. Today we know that the company is growing at an even faster rate than we figured just 24 hours ago. However, now the stock trades at 40x 2006 earnings.

Google’s growth rate has gone up, and the stock’s valuation has gone down. In this particular case, I can’t justify selling the stock, despite today’s $40 gain.

The Google Numbers

Are pretty amazing. If you are wondering why the stock is up $29 in after-hours trading, consider the following. Google (GOOG) grew revenue 14% sequentially from Q2 to Q3. During the same period, Yahoo (YHOO) grew sales 6%. So, right now GOOG is growing more than twice as fast as YHOO. And yet when you look at today’s closing prices, GOOG is 41x 2006 EPS with YHOO trading at 47x. Another point to think about is Google grew 14% sequentially in the 3rd quarter (which equates to 69% annualized), which is seasonally the weakest quarter of the year.

The Energy Debacle

The following numbers were pulled from the October 2005 report from the Energy Information Administration:

Total worldwide oil demand:
2004 – 82.5 million barrels per day
2005 – 83.7 million barrels per day
2006 – 85.6 million barrels per day

Total worldwide oil supply:
2004 – 83.0 million barrels per day
2005 – 84.3 million barrels per day
2006 – 85.5 million barrels per day

As readers of this blog are aware, I think buyers of energy stocks are current prices will be handsomely rewarded. Most are down 20% or more this month alone. ConocoPhilips (COP) has forward P/E of 6.4x. Occidental (OXY) is 7x. Plains (PXP) is 8x.

It is true that dramatic commodity price erosion from here would put these estimates in jeopardy, and therefore make these P/E’s irrelevent. However, when I see numbers like the ones from the EIA, along with $60 oil and $13 natural gas today, I tend to think the reaction right now on Wall Street is out of line. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Genentech’s Q3 Highlights Healthcare Cost Issues

There is little arguing that the rising cost of healthcare is one of the biggest issues hampering the U.S. economy. Next year, average health insurance premiums are expected to surpass $14,000 per family. That will represent one-third of the average household income in this country. The main reason for such staggering costs are prices for prescription drugs. Drug expenditures, which were $12 billion in 1980, hit $179 billion in 2003. That’s an average increase of 12.5% per year, more than 4 times the historical rate of inflation.

Investors need look no further than the Genentech (DNA) Q3 earnings report to see exactly how crazy drug prices have gotten. Genentech’s newest and second-best selling drug, Avastin, costs a whopping $140 for a day’s supply. That equates to $4,400 per month and $53,000 per year. Should a drug for colon cancer really cost 20% more per year than the average household income in the United States? I bet very few could argue it should.

The argument for limiting the costs of prescription drugs centers around the idea that limited profit potential will result in less research and development, and therefore fewer novel therapies for the world’s most lethal diseases. Without the ability to make a significant profit, proponents of a healthcare free market say, drug makers will lose the incentive to discover new drugs for cancer, heart desease, etc.

However, a simple analysis of Genentech’s third quarter income statement shows that this theory, while it makes sense in economic terms, simply isn’t true when you actually look at the numbers. Here are some key facts from DNA’s latest earnings release:

* Genentech’s drug mark-up (retail price versus manufacturing cost) is 662%

* Only 38% of the drug company’s profit is reinvested into research and development, and net profit after tax actually surpasses total R&D expenditures

* Drug company net profit margins are nearly 20%, higher than any other major industry

And the one that is important to understand when hearing the debate on spiraling costs for prescription drugs:

* If retail prices for Genentech’s drugs were reduced by 50% effective immediately, the company would still be able to spend the same amount it does today on R&D and would have more than $400 million left over in excess profit every year

BioCryst Rally Warrants Trepidation

Shares of biotech firm BioCryst Pharmaceuticals (BCRX) have caught fire lately after worries over a potential Avian Flu pandemic have flooded media outlets. The stock is up 80 percent to $17.65 already this month and has tripled in the last three months, giving the company a market cap of nearly half a billion dollars.

To say this violent move to the upside is based on speculation would be a dramatic understatement. The excitement over BCRX comes from a flu vaccine that the company actually scrapped in 2002 after it failed late stage clinical trials. However, with Avian Flu worries running rampant, the company has decided to bring back the drug and test it on bird flu. Early indications show it might have some kind of positive effect, but it’s way too early to conclude the drug, Peramavir, would be successful in preventing the spread of Avian Flu.

Investors, though, haven’t really focused on the downside (an ineffective drug brought back into testing only to get shelved again), but rather only on what it could do, become heavily useable in case a pandemic of Avian Bird Flu does sweep the globe. What happens if Avian Bird Flu goes the way of SARS, and in several months we never hear of it again? Or what happens if BioCryst’s drug shows to not work, or not work any better than drugs that have already been approved by the FDA for the flu (TamiFlu from Gilead, for instance)?

There is no doubt that BCRX shares have momentum right now as individual retail investors gobble up shares while the media hypes the potential death toll from an Avian Flu pandemic. Such momentum could drive the stock higher in the short term, with $20 or $25 very feasible. However, for BCRX to maintain its current share price for the longer term, after the hype dies down, a lot of things need to go perfectly, most of which the company and investors can’t control. If that doesn’t happen, remember that BCRX was a $3 stock in April of this year.

Peridot Not Alone In Buying Sears

Late Friday Sears Holdings (SHLD) announced that its board has authorized a $500 million stock buyback program. You may recall the company did the same thing exactly a month ago on September 14th. In today’s press release, Sears said they have bought back $434 million of that inital amount in the last month, at an average price of $118.86 per share.

This announcement brings the total amount of the buyback to $1 billion, or roughly 5% of the company’s outstanding shares, and could be completed within 60 days, start to finish. Based on these numbers, earnings per share for Sears in 2006 will be increased by nearly $0.40 per share.

Amazingly, the stock still goes down pretty much every day, and trades below the prices Sears has been paying recently. Investors won’t be able to come back a year or two from now and say they didn’t have a great chance to get in, that’s for sure.