Google Drops $80 in After Hours Trading

The headline numbers at Google (GOOG) were $1.29B in sales and $1.54 EPS, versus expectations of $1.29B and $1.76. The stock just opened down $80 to $350 in the extended hours session. The reason for the EPS miss was a higher tax rate (41.8%) than what most people expected (26%-30%). Had the rate been in-line with estimates, EPS would have beat consensus by a few cents. The company said it expects a 30% tax rate in 2006, so it could be a one-time hiccup and not that big of a deal. I am going long a little stock into the conference call, thinking that the initial reaction might be too violent to the downside after we hear what they have to say. It should be interesting.

Cramer Pump Sends NMTI Up 34% After Hours

Nothing really surprises me anymore, but today’s action in NMT Medical (NMTI) is absolutely ludicrous. NMTI is a micro cap medical device company that closed today’s regular session at $17 per share.

Tonight on CNBC’s Mad Money show, Jim Cramer led off the hour-long episode by recommending NMTI, saying it could go to $100 if their new migrane product is approved. If the trials fail, his downside projection was $10 a share. Given the risk/reward he sees, Cramer pumps the stock for several minutes and the stock quickly jumps over 33%, or $6 per share, to $23 and change.

The reason I bring this up is because NMT Medical is one of 10 stocks featured on Peridot Capital’s 2006 Select List, published earlier this month. Thanks to many individual investors who were silly enough to put in a market order to buy, simply based on Cramer’s recommendation, I was able to sell a decent chunk of stock at between $23.09 and $23.75.

First of all, if you purchased our 2006 Select List and are lucky enough to be holding shares of NMTI right now, I strongly suggest taking some profits tonight in after-hours trading, or on Monday if the mark-up holds early next week. There is no fundamental reason for the stock to be up at all, let alone more than 30 percent.

It is true that the company’s devices could be a huge hit if they prove effective, but human trials have not been completed. This stock is very speculative, as was noted in our report, and is not for every investor. In fact, we tabbed it the lone “speculative pick” in the group of 10 companies we profiled in the report. Please trade with caution, especially if you are a fan of Cramer’s show. These are very dangerous waters for retail investors.

Another interesting twist is that NMT, not NMTI, spiked $5 during Cramer’s show, as investors bought the wrong stock with a similar ticker symbol. NMT is a municipal bond fund that closed at $15, but some people paid $20+ for it in after-hours trading. Another example that if you’re not careful, you can lose 25% of your money on a trade within minutes.

Legg Mason’s Miller Understands the Game

Bill Miller, manager of Legg Mason Value Trust (LMVTX), has done something that no other fund manager can claim. Since taking over sole management of the fund, he has beaten the market each and every year, for 15 straight years. Is he just lucky like some efficient market supporters would claim? Or does he know something that others don’t?

The answer is neither. Markets are not completely efficient. All they do is incorporate the consensus view of investors and use that to arrive at a prevailing market price. The conventional wisdom is collected in an efficient manner, but such wisdom is wrong more than it is right. Every quarter when public companies report their earnings, about 70 percent will either miss or exceed the consensus estimate.

Miller’s most recent letter to shareholders outlines his strategy. His ideas will seem reasonable, logical, perhaps even obvious to many. However, when we look across Wall Street we see very few who put them into practice. Which begs the question, why?

People ask me all the time what my philosophy is, my approach to investing. These are the concepts investors must grasp to be good at what they do, before you even begin to look at an industry or a specific company’s stock. Many individual investors choose to buy what they know, what they like. Many financial advisers at your big name retail brokerages recommend them as well. That can end very badly, for many of the reasons expressed below. These are excerpts from the letter.

“Unfortunately, when we purchase companies we believe are mispriced, it is often difficult to determine when the market will agree with us and close the discount to intrinsic value. Our goal is to construct portfolios that have the potential to outperform the market over an investment time horizon of 3-5 years without assuming undue risk. If we achieve that goal, we believe we will be doing our job, whether we beat the market each and every year or not.”

“The most common error in investing is confusing business fundamentals with investment merit. A company that is doing terrifically well, that has great management and returns on capital, and great products and prospects, may be a terrible investment if the expecations embedded in the current valaution are in excess of those fundamentals. A company with poor business fundamentals, a mediocore management, and indifferent prospects may be a great investment if the market is even more pessimistic about the business than is warranted. The most important question in investing is what is discounted, or put slightly differently, what are the expectations embedded in the valuation?”

“Systematic outperformance requires variant perception: one must believe something different from what the market believes, and one must be right. This usually involves weighting publically available information differently from the market, either as to its magnitude or its duration. More simply, the market is either wrong about how important something is, or wrong about when that something occurs, or both.”

Changing My Tune on Blockbuster

Many of you may recall my negative piece on Blockbuster (BBI) back in August. At the time the stock was $7 and looked pricey given an extremely competitive business environment and a horrendous balance sheet.

While I still believe video-on-demand is the future, and online DVD rental services are not the answer to BBI’s profit woes, the stock’s swoon to $3.85 as of today’s close signals to me that much, if not all, of the bad news has now been fully priced in.

While a turnaround will not be easy, the company’s stores clearly have some value. Blockbuster’s creditors have been very lenient with respect to possible violations of debt covenants, so bankruptcy in the short-term does not appear to be an issue.

Would I go long now that the stock has dropped 45 percent and could rebound to a decent level? It’s not at the top of my list by any means, as there are many better, safer values to be had.

That said, most of the bad news seems to have played out, so short sellers may be wise to take their hefty profit and move on to something else.

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.

Friday Tech Talk

ACS BUYOUT APPEARS LIKELY

It appears the days of Peridot owning shares of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) may be coming to a close. Rumors have been swirling in recent weeks that the company is up for sale, with a long list of private equity firms in on the bidding process. Reports have pegged potential price tags in the range of $62 to $65 per share.

While a deal seems likely, I am really hoping to get close to $65, as my fair value calculation nets a $66 price objective. Since rumors have been out there, but no deal is in place, ACS has drifted down a couple of points to its current $60 quote.

For short term players looking to make a few points on the announcement, a deal could be announced as early as Monday, and I would speculate that the odds of one falling apart completely are no more than 25%. Even if no buyer emerges, ACS stock trades 10% below what I think it’s ultimately going to be worth later this year.

NETWORK APPLIANCE RALLY GETTING FROTHY

I was selling shares of Network Appliance (NTAP) into yesterday’s strength as the shares jumped as much as $4 (13%) to $34.49 per share. Evidently, rumors of an IBM (IBM) buyout offer were swirling, which led to an upside breakout.

Even though I am very bullish on NTAP’s business prospects, and an IBM bid could very well send the stock even higher, I don’t think the odds of a buyout are very high. On top of that, with the stock at $34 per share, it’s hard for me to justify much upside to the stock without such a deal.

Estimates for 2006 currently stand at about $0.85 per share. That’s a very high multiple, even with the company’s 25% growth rate and solid balance sheet. For me, the risk/reward trade-off at these lofty levels has lost its luster, at least for now.

Index Funds Lag for 7th Straight Year

Vanguard did a good job of convincing people to buy into their S&P 500 index fund, but was that advice wise? Jack Bogle, the company’s founder and most outspoken advocate, seems to make a decent case for Vanguard.

After getting crushed by their technology stock centric portfolios from 2000 through 2002 (The Nasdaq fell 80%), investors should just move what’s left of their nest egg into index funds. After all, few actively mutual managed funds can consistently beat the overall market indices. Why pay 1.5% per year for a lackluster managed fund when you get pay 90% less for Vanguard Index 500?

Not only do we hear this logic all the time, but millions of people have adopted the strategy. What do they have to show for it? Not much, according to Lipper, a leading tracker of mutual fund perfomance. For the 7th straight year actively managed U.S. stock mutual funds beat the S&P 500 index funds that have been marketed so heavily since the bubble burst.

So far this decade the S&P 500 has averaged a return of 0.2 percent per year. Actively managed frunds have returned 3.5% annually for their investors during the same time period. Some people may be surprised to learn this, but is it really that shocking? If active managers can’t beat a 0.2% return, that would be pretty pathetic. Still, annual gains that barely outpace inflation are certainly nothing that active mutual fund owners should feel all that happy with, so don’t think these funds are all of the sudden your best way to make good money.

The index fund argument completely ignores the entire point of investing; to buy low and sell high. To do so, investors must purchase attractively priced stocks, wait until they trade closer to fair value, and sell them. Then the process repeats itself. How does owning every stock in the country via an index fund accomplish this feat? By definition, it won’t. You’ll own undervalued stocks, fairly valued stocks, and overvalued stocks. Basically, you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping the stock market goes up. Too bad the bull market ended six years ago.

I don’t know about all of you, but banking your retirement on the hope that the market will go up is a risky proposition. Getting superior returns from index funds will solely depend on whether or not you happen to own them during bull markets or not. Unfortunately for investors, the greatest bull market in history ended in 1999. Pretty ironic considering that actively managed funds have outperformed the S&P 500 each and every year since, you guessed it, 1999.

GM Moves Away From Incentives, But Cuts Prices?

So General Motors (GM) is looking to reduce its reliance on consumer incentives to boost car sales. Sounds like a good idea to me. When you have offered employee discounts and zero percent financing for months on end, the buyer knows they have huge negotiating leverage when they walk into a dealership. Ideally, buyers would be willing to pay market prices for quality vehicles that they want.

The interesting part of this story is that GM is cutting prices by up to $2,500 per vehicle to make up for the reduced incentives in order to entice consumers. It seems like they are changing the name of the discounts, but still don’t have the product line to charge full price. Cutting incentives and reducing sticker prices simultaneously seems like a zero sum game to me.

Urban Jumps 12% on Analyst Comments

Two weeks ago I wrote that Urban Outfitters (URBN) looked like it was bottoming at $25 and change, given that it was oversold and yet was holding a heavy support level around $24.44-$24.45 per share. The next week, on January 4th, the stock closed at $24.48 and never went any lower.

Today we have a couple of positive analyst reports pushing the stock up more than $3, or 12 percent, to $28 and change. Traders can take their $3 and run, but I would not be surprised if we see $30 this month.