Bank of America Dividend Yield Sits Far Above 30-Year Bond

Bank of America (BAC) is not a stock that has gotten my attention very often in recent years, but last week after the shares dropped to $47 and the company boosted its dividend yet again, I switching into the bullish camp (from neutral) for the stock.

BAC currently yields 5.4%, which is about 50 basis points above the 30-year treasury bond. That also equates to a trailing P/E of 10 times. I am very much aware that investors are spooked about mortgage lending and financial market exposure with the big banks, but compared with larger rivals JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Citigroup (C), Bank of America has less exposure and should fare better should credit issues persist or get worse from here. Not only do they tend to avoid the very low end of the credit spectrum in the mortgage area, but a smaller portion of their profits come from financial markets than the others.

Given where the stock trades and the enormous dividend yield, I doubt the stock has big downside potential from here, and if the current worries prove to be overblown and BAC’s earnings growth continues, you could get decent capital appreciation in addition to your more than 5% annual payout, which is better than the projected performance bonds are currently offering.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of BAC at the time of writing

Just Don’t Panic

On days like this the best advice I can give is, don’t panic. Panic selling just because the market gets a little scary will, more often than not, prove to be a big mistake. Every once in a while the psychology of the market takes over. Regardless of fundamentals, stock prices simply move in irrational ways. The best thing to do is simply sit tight and wait it out.

This is not to say that every stock’s move lately is irrational, but a company can post strong earnings, have a good conference call, get a nice stock price bump, and then a few days later the market tanks and the shares are much lower than they were before. In the short term, psychology always trumps fundamentals.

However, if you’ve done your homework and are confident in your investment thesis for particular names, just wait it out. You can add to positions if you want, but that can be hard in a tape like this. Selling into the panic most likely will cause you to have called the bottom and not profited from it.

Are there any real contrarian buys out there? I would not try to bottom fish in the mortgage area. There will be a point in time where Countrywide (CFC) is a buy, but I think we have a long way to go. It looks like the housing market won’t improve much, if at all, in 2008. I think it’s too early to jump in.

That said, the reason why CFC will be a buy at some point in the future is because of the valuation. Unlike the brokerage stocks, which could be facing peak earnings, Countrywide is staring at trough earnings and the stock still trades at a 10 P/E. It could certainly get worse before it gets better, so CFC’s recently reduced 2007 guidance of $3.00 per share might be too high. Who knows, maybe they’ll earn $2.00 when it’s all said and done, which means there is plenty of downside left. Until housing stabilizes for a long period of time and inventories diminish, I would stay away.

All in all though, just don’t panic. We’ve gone through periods like this before (earlier this year in fact), and things always wind up being okay longer term. Unless we see serious and sustainable ripple effects in the economy from the housing market, I am not overly concerned. However, patience is required during times like these more than others.

Full Disclosure: No position in CFC at the time of writing

Akamai Crushed, Outlook Still Attractive

This will be a fairly short post since I had no plans to write about Akamai (AKAM) today, but after reporting in-line earnings this streaming video content provider is getting slammed to the tune of 18% this morning to $38 and change. Akamai is one of those high multiple growth stocks that everyone expects to beat numbers every quarter. After meeting expectations and guiding in-line for the third quarter, analysts are downgrading and investors are fleeing.

I think the sell-off is overdone and I am initiating some positions this morning. The company’s fundamentals remain strong as online video has years of growth ahead of it. All of the sudden the stock trades at only 23 times 2008 earnings. For a growth stock like AKAM, I think that is a bargain. Many investors will worry about margin pressures and such since it appears they are giving price discounts for long-term contracts, but most likely the company is just being conservative.

Given the market they serve and their leadership position, I think a 23 forward year multiple for the stock is pretty cheap. These are the types of earnings season sell-offs that I often like to play on the long side. AKAM shares weren’t worth the price at their highs ($57), but now that they are down 35% to $38, I think that falls into “growth at a reasonable price” territory.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of AKAM at the time of writing

Consider Natural Gas ETF for New Energy Investments

Quite predictably, crude oil has been on a roll in recent weeks as the summer driving season has driven seasonally strong performance. With oil trading around $75 per barrel, fresh money investments into the energy sector might not be ideal at these prices. Don’t get me wrong, I am still bullish on oil in general, but investors should not jump on the energy bandwagon with new money when we are in the middle of peak oil season.

For new money right now I would suggest investors take a look at natural gas. In fact, in mid April a new ETF was formed to track natural gas prices. Even while oil has soared from the low 60’s to the mid 70’s, natural gas has collapsed from more than $8 to below $6. Another non-existent hurricane season has contributed to the drop, but natural gas prices will remain volatile in the future, and given the weakness lately, it appears to be an attractive entry point.

The natural gas ETF trades under the symbol UNG and has plummeted from above $54 to $38 in the last couple of months, as you can see from the chart below. After a 30 percent drop, I think it looks attractive for investors looking to add some energy exposure but are wary of buying crude oil stocks at current prices. You can also play this via unhedged natural gas producers, but since this ETF is new, I figured I would point it out as another potential investment vehicle in the space.

Full Disclosure: No position in UNG at the time of writing

Why Would a CEO Stick with Quarterly Guidance?

I read an interesting take on this question today and I think it has a lot of merit. While many of us would prefer public companies abandon quarterly guidance, there are reasons why a CEO would keep giving it out. One reason might be to make them look good, and therefore enhance their job security.

If you are an active investment manager (whether for personal assets or professionally) you have likely observed in recent years that a pattern has developed during earnings season on Wall Street. Companies tend to beat estimates for the most recent quarter and guide estimates lower for the current and/or future periods. The end result is that most quarters finish with earnings coming in ahead of estimates on the whole.

While stock prices might dip in the short term because investors care more about future guidance than earnings already booked, this practice sets the bar very low. By keeping expectations meager, it maximizes the odds that the company will beat numbers next quarter, and that makes management look good. Under-promise and over-deliver (“UPOD” as Jim Cramer calls it). It works, and it’s what public companies should do in general (although maybe less often than every three months).

I think this is a great explanation for why many companies will keep playing the guidance game. It sets the bar low, makes them look like they’re doing a good job running their companies, and boosts their job security. If you don’t give guidance at all, the analysts could set the bar too high, forcing you to miss numbers and get an earful from investors.

How can investors play this growing trend? Buy stocks after a post-earnings sell off due to a guide down. After the company sets the bar low, investors adjust their valuations accordingly. Over the next couple months, Wall Street will realize the numbers are too low and the stocks will get a boost as strong performance is priced in again. Use that strength to pare off positions before the next earnings report if you think they might be lackluster or conservative.

That seems like the best way to trade the ever-growing trend of beating earnings and guiding lower for future quarters.

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.

Should We Invest in Unethical Companies?

I had a telephone conversation last week with a new client and one of the questions he had for me was, “Do you invest in unethical companies?” He was speaking about Wal-Mart (WMT) specifically, it turns out, but there are a lot of investors who avoid buying shares in companies with which they disapprove of their products, their way of doing business, or both. Common examples include stocks with ties to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, casinos, Mideast oil, etc. It was a good question and one that I don’t think I’ve addressed on this blog before, so I figured I would give my perspective.

Before I get into an explanation, the answer to this question is yes, I will buy shares in the likes of Anheuser Busch (BUD), Altria (MO), Halliburton (HAL), Wal-Mart, and MGM Grand (MGM) if I think the stocks are good investments. This assumes of course that the client is okay with this. If a client does not want to own certain stocks, I have no problem following their request.

The issue here, in most cases, is whether or not you want to support companies like this if you disagree (insert a stronger word here if you prefer) with what they stand for. Many people equate buying stock to supporting a company. The reality though, is that Wal-Mart does not benefit in any way if I were to buy 100 shares of their stock. That action simply results in one of their current investors transferring their shares to me, in return for cash. Wal-Mart does not benefit monetarily from that transaction. After an initial sale of common shares, the money changing hands is between individuals, so the company is out of the picture.

I have no problem ceasing support for companies I don’t like. However, if I wanted to stop supporting Wal-Mart, for example, I would simply choose to never again set foot in one of their stores. No longer shopping there is adversely affecting their business. Not investing in their stock is not having the same effect. Since my job is to make money for clients, I will generally invest in the stocks that I feel can accomplish that goal, regardless of whether or not I like the underlying firms or not.

This reasoning of course assumes that you are not buying shares in an IPO or a new offering of stock through which the firm is directly receiving the proceeds from the sale. In those cases, not buying the stock does have an impact on them, even though there will always be someone else willing to invest even if you’re not. Still, it’s the principle that is important.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but not for the reasons discussed above 🙂

I Hope Eddie Lampert Is Mulling a Deal

What could be worse than trying to turn around Kmart and Sears? The only thing I can think of is trying to do that when the low end consumer is being squeezed from all angles and the housing market is weak. Today’s earnings warnings from Home Depot (HD) and Sears (SHLD) aren’t that surprising when we look at the macro view of the economy domestically, but even still, the Sears number was pretty bad and Home Depot only escaped a wrath of selling because of their enormous buyback. Sears announced a $1 billion buyback, but that is just a drop in the bucket for them (4% of shares outstanding).

Home Depot got lucky. They timed the sale of their supply business well enough that they can just use that money to buyback shares above the market price and keep their stock up even when earnings are declining. Sears has a problem, though, in that it hasn’t diversified yet like everyone thought it would. The Kmart/Sears merger was supposed to be about real estate, excess cash flow, making more acquisitions, becoming the next Berkshire, etc. What happened?

Well, Eddie Lampert decided to try and fix the retail business as best he could. That’s a perfectly fine idea (just look at what JC Penney has been able to do over the last five years and you’ll see retail turnarounds like this do happen) but given we have the low end consumer getting squeezed and a weak housing market (which just happen to be the two core focuses for Kmart and Sears), the fact that Lampert hasn’t diversified Sears Holdings yet is a problem right now.

Long term investors (myself included) likely aren’t overly concerned because they know the retail weakness won’t last forever, and they know Lampert has other ideas for excess cash. But, given the stock price weakness lately, he really needs to do something to get the shares moving again, a la Home Depot. So what should he do?

Quite simply, a deal, any deal. I don’t mean just any deal that happens to be available (it has to make sense), but it also does not have to be an outright buyout of another company. Surely Wall Street would applaud the purchase of something at a bargain basement price, preferably outside of retail completely, but even an internal deal could boost shareholder morale.

The most logical would be a large real estate deal like many investors have been hoping for since Lampert bought Kmart out of bankruptcy and leveraged that stake to takeover Sears. Eddie hasn’t sold underperforming locations as fast as many people thought he might. It is clear he wants to try things before giving up on certain locations. However, a deal to monetize some real estate would accomplish two things that would help the stock price.

First, it would show to investors that the real estate actually does have meaningful value. It has been debated exactly how much the Sears real estate is worth. Everybody has their own forecasts, but in reality, something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay. Selling stores would give investors a way to value that real estate (which is likely understated in most valuation models focused mostly on retail profits) and also show them that Lampert is willing to cut his losses on more stores.

The second thing it would do would be to help the bottom line. Selling underperforming stores not only gives you money to diversify with, but it also boosts your earnings, which are already under pressure due to the economic environment. Surely there are stores that aren’t making any money, even after many have been closed. Closing those underperforming locations will help boost retail margins, which would also boost investors’ perception of what the company’s retail business is worth.

All in all, Sears is in the unenviable situation of trying to turn around a retailer during tough times. Since this makes it harder than usual, if they want to continue down the retail road, it is imperative for the company to make some moves to diversify away from low-end retail and housing. The only way to do that is to free up some cash, or use cash you already have on hand, and do a deal. Either sell some real estate and reallocate that money, or use the money you have now and buy something unrelated to Kmart and Sears.

If Lampert does something like that sometime this year, Sears stock can get moving again. As long as he waits it out, the odds are good that the stock is dead money for a while. I’m confident he will make the right moves, which is why I’ve owned the stock for years and will continue to hold it, but after Tuesday’s earnings warning, I think it is important for him to do something sooner rather than later. If not, he will eventually lose some of his loyal supporters.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Sears Holdings

Is It Time to Buy Bear Stearns?

Whenever a good company falls upon hard times that could very well just be temporary, it pays for value investors to take a look and see if Wall Street has overly punished the stock. After the hedge fund blowups at Bear Stearns (BSC) recently (they made some bad bets in the mortgage market), BSC stock has retreated more than 30 points from its highs, as the chart below shows.

Is the stock a bargain? Well, I compared it with the other big investment banking companies and I expected to see more of a discrepancy in the valuations than I found. The Big 5 (Bear along with Goldman, Lehman, Merrill, and Morgan) all trade right around 10 times forecasted earnings for 2007. As P/E multiples go, buyers of BSC aren’t getting any discount compared with the likes of Goldman Sachs (GS). That didn’t exactly get me excited about bottom fishing with Bear.

I also looked at a ratio called price-to-tangible book value. This measure is the same as price-to-book, but ignores intangible assets that can’t be easily and quickly valued. Book value is perhaps the most important valuation metric for banks given that the vast majority of their assets are liquid financial instruments and all banks pretty much do the same things business-wise, for the most part.

On this measure Bear Stearns trades at a discount of 1.6 times net tangible assets. This compares with 3.1 times for Goldman and between 2.2 and 2.4 times for the other three major players in the industry. As you can see, investors are paying up for Goldman’s superior track record and management. While Bear is cheaper, the stock would probably have to get down to 1.5 times book or less for me to really get excited about it as a contrarian play. That is not to say the discount won’t narrow as the sub-prime issues subside, but 1.6 times book isn’t a price that I feel like I absolutely need to jump at. It’s cheap, especially relative to the other brokers, but not ridiculously cheap by any means.

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