Thoughts on the Financial Media

Since it came up in discussions regarding my last post, I wanted to touch upon the issue of the financial media a bit more. I think it is important for investors to understand why media outfits like the NY Times (NYT) might not be the best resources to use when making investment decisions. Recent events involving a story the aforementioned paper published about Warren Buffett’s interest in buying a 20% stake in Bear Stearns (BSC) bring the issue to light even more.

For those that didn’t hear about it, shares of Bear Stearns rose more than 10% on Wednesday after the NY Times reported that Buffett was one of several parties discussing the purchase of a minority stake in the troubled investment bank. Within minutes other reporters were playing down the story after speaking with sources they have within the industry. The next morning, Bear even refuted the story itself on a call with investors. Lots of people have lost money due to what looks to be an erroneous report. Most likely someone leaked the story to a NY Times reporter, assuming they might publish it, causing a temporary jump in the stock price, allowing them to sell some stock at a nice profit right before the end of the quarter.

Now, yes, that explanation as to why it all happened is purely speculation on my part. However, based on what happens all the time on Wall Street, coupled with the fact that the story was immediately rebuffed by numerous sources, including Bear Stearns, leads me to be cynical and suspect that the Times did not check with many reliable sources before reporting Buffett’s supposed interest.

I bring this up because media outlets are not the most trustworthy of resources when trying to gauge the merit of a particular investment. The NY Times is often guilty of this because they are based in the financial capital of the world and have access to lots of Wall Street people, but many other media people make the same mistakes.

It shouldn’t really be all that surprising though, that is, the fact that newspapers and the media in general is often biased in their reporting. In recent months, the NY Times has published numerous stories, from numerous reporters, regarding many different financial corporations including student lending firms, credit card issuers, and mortgage companies. Some of these firms I am invested in, so although I don’t read the NY Times regularly, I have seen some of the “journalism” that has been published to the extent that it has caused stock price movements that interest me.

It is no secret that the Times has a liberal bias in many cases, and some of their attacks on large consumer lending companies makes it clear that some of their reporters are purposely trying to criticize large financial institutions for their lending practices, whether it be to college students, sub-prime home owners, or credit card dependent consumers. I guess it’s just the world we live in.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for throwing the book at companies that break the law or act in extremely unethical ways. By no means am I arguing that unlawful acts should not be punished to the fullest extent, and please don’t assume that I am writing strictly to make a political point. Most times I am successful in separating my political beliefs from my job as a stock picker, not only because it serves me and my clients best by doing so, but also because the views are often at opposite ends of the spectrum.

However, since consumer lending activities have become such a big issue lately, the media has started to really cross the line, in my view. It has, in part, I believe contributed to the fact that many Americans feel like they are constant victims of big business, whether it be the oil companies’ supposed price gauging (which there is no evidence of), or any type of consumer lending that has been called predatory in nature without any evidence to support the claim.

Stories in recent months from the likes of the NY Times have sharply criticized many financial institutions, and in some cases, have even gone as far as insinuated that they are breaking the law. Some examples of these horrible activities include student loan companies that factor in things like career path and which college you attend when determining your loan eligibility and interest rate, or mortgage companies that are offering wealthier white borrowers loans more often, and at more attractive terms, than minority, less wealthy borrowers. It turns out, in fact, that mortgage companies also offer their sales people higher commissions for more profitable adjustable rate mortgages than they do for fixed rate versions (much like stock brokers usually try to sell clients annuities — they have high fees and sales commissions of up to 8%!).

Now, if you read these stories without a cynical tilt you are more likely than not going to conclude that companies like Countrywide (CFC), Sallie Mae (SLM), and JP Morgan Chase (JPM) are crooks who are discriminating against anyone and everyone in the name of profitability. Those profits in the end wind up in the hands of wealthy executives and shareholders, which results in an ever-widening gap between the wealthy people making the loans and the less wealthy ones receiving them. This press coverage does result, at least in the short term, to lower stock prices and a general anger toward big business in general. In my view, these attacks are not only often unfair, but in some cases completely one-sided and oftentimes based on assumptions that are simply untrue.

For instance, is it fair to imply that it is at most illegal, and at least unethical, to factor in what degree you are seeking and what school you plan on attending when deciding whether or not to offer you a student loan and at what interest rate? Believe it or not, lenders offer loans to people based on what they think the odds are of being repaid. The better your credit, the more likely you are to not only get a loan, but also a low interest rate. Lenders need to consider this issue more than any other when deciding who to lend money to. The higher the risk, the less often you will qualify for a loan, and even when you do get approved, your increased credit risk results in higher interest rates.

Now, does anyone think that which college you attend and which career path you are pursuing might be relevant factors in determining a borrower’s creditworthiness? The fact is, there is a direct correlation between education, career, and annual income. It also stands to reason that the more money you end up making, the higher probability there is that you will be able to pay back your student loan. Therefore, is it unfair to accuse Sallie Mae of illegally discriminating based on school choice or career path? Most economists would say “yes.”

The same arguments can be made on any number of fronts. Do a smaller percentage of minority borrowers get low interest rate loans because of their skin color and ethnic background, or is it because of their credit worthiness? Most likely, the latter. That does not mean we should not strive to put in place policies that seek to get minority education levels and incomes on par with everyone else, it just means that accusing the banks of racism is probably crossing the line.

The current mortgage and housing industry downturn we are seeing is partly due to the fact that lenders actually abandoned these basic lending principles. Traditionally, the better your credit history, the better loan you were offered. Not surprisingly, the housing boom led companies to get greedy. The more loans they made, the more money they made (at least in the short term, as we are finding out now).

The result was that the lenders completely turned their lending practices on their head. If you couldn’t afford a standard 30 year fixed rate mortgage with 20% down, a new type of loan was created for you allowing little or no down payment and an attractive teaser interest rate. All of the sudden, people who couldn’t get loans were able to go out and buy houses they couldn’t normally afford. And that’s how we got ourselves in this mess.

Amazingly, we lived in a world where the better your credit, the worse your loan terms! High quality borrowers put 20% down on their house and paid 6% interest while sub-prime borrowers put less down and got low single digit introductory rates. How on earth does that make any sense?

It doesn’t, but people are paying for it now. Many lenders have either gone out of business or are losing money hand over fist now since they failed to align the credit worthiness of the borrower with the loans they were offered. And yet, some people want to criticize smart lenders for doing their due diligence and aligning credit histories with interest rates.

Consumers are also to blame since those facing possible foreclosure are constantly being quoted as saying they were so intent on getting their house that they didn’t read the loan agreement before signing it. Well, if you were about to be loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars and didn’t bother to take the time to read the paperwork to find out how much that loan was going to cost, maybe it’s your fault for taking the money just as much as it was the lender’s fault for offering it to you.

I’m getting a little sidetracked here, but the basic point is this. It is imperative that lenders size up the creditworthiness of borrowers to determine loan terms that are appropriate to compensate them for the repayment risk they are taking. Doing so is not illegal or unethical, although hundreds of biased press stories will try to convince you otherwise. These issues are all coming to a head in 2007 and due to the highly divided political landscape our country is facing, people are becoming more and more inherently biased. It’s a shame that this is the case, but it is simply reality. And it’s not just the Times, of course. Conservative papers will be coming from the exact opposite end of the spectrum. It’s just the world we live in today.

This is important from an investing standpoint because you need to consider these issues if you are going to allow the media to play a role in your investment decisions. I would recommend that you not base your investing on what you read in the media. Due to inherent biases, there is going to be information left out because it doesn’t prove a certain desired point, and other information is going to be embellished to make a certain case seem even stronger.

The best thing to do is to base your decision on the facts, not on opinions. In many cases that means taking what public companies say at face value. It is true that there will always be Enrons and WorldComs in this world. However, there are far more biased press reports that ignore facts than there are crooked companies and executives. If you are trying to research a company’s mortgage portfolio, for instance, and the company is willing to break out in agonizing detail exactly what loans they have made (what the delinquency rates are, what the credit scores of the borrowers are, etc.), then you are probably better off analyzing that data than the opinions expressed in the media.

If a company is unwilling to disclose the data you feel you need to make an appropriate investment decision, then find another company that will. In the world we live in today there are too many people with an agenda or a bias that colors what they feel, think, and publish. Heck, I’m guilty of it too. If I’m going to write about a stock that I am invested in, won’t I tend to be bullish? Of course.

However, the merit of my opinion can be greatly increased if I use facts to back up my assumptions. If someone offers up facts and you agree with their underlying assumptions, it is far more likely they will be right. If you read or hear something with a lot of opinion and speculation, but little in the way of facts (say, for instance, in the case of Warren Buffett’s supposed interest in buying Bear Stearns), perhaps it is prudent to be more skeptical.

Take the case of Bear Stearns, for example. On Wednesday the NY Times reported that Warren Buffett was discussing taking a 20% stake in the company. There was no evidence in the story that suggested the rumor had any merit. Within 24 hours numerous reporters were doubting the story after talking with their sources and Bear dismissed the rumors directly. We cannot know for sure if Buffett will wind up buying a 20% stake in Bear Stearns, but based on the factual information we have, I wouldn’t be willing to bet any money on it.

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

Reader Mailbag – Is E*Trade a Bargain?

Carol from Phoenix writes:

“Chad, I was wondering if you would comment in your blog about E-Trade (ETFC) from a contrarian, value viewpoint. Their stock has been beaten down lately, but their fundamental business seems strong, and they appear to have rid themselves of what little subprime exposure they had. Thanks!”

Thanks for the question, Carol.

I decided to publish my answer on the blog because I have actually been looking at E*Trade in recent days. This is exactly the kind of contrarian play that I think value investors should be looking at within the financial services sector. It falls into the category of being beaten down due to mortgage market issues, but I do think there is a lot of long-term value here, given that mortgages are not a core focus for E*Trade. Let’s take a look at why the stock has fallen so much. The shares are down a stunning 54% since June to $12 each.

In recent years E*Trade has started offering its core retail brokerage customers a wider array of financial products, including bank accounts, certificates of deposit, mortgages, and home equity loans. Not surprisingly, they are not immune to the mortgage market meltdown. Earlier this month, the company announced it was joining the ranks of those firms moving to shut down their wholesale mortgage business due to market conditions. That, along with a higher than expected provision for loan losses and some institutional brokerage restructuring costs will result in dramatically lower earnings for 2007. E*Trade now expect full year GAAP earnings per share of $1.10, down from their prior target of $1.60 per share.

So, to answer Carol’s question, does ETFC represent a good contrarian value play? To me it appears that it does. With any contrarian investment idea, you will have to be patient, but buying a premier franchise for what could very well turn out to be less than 11 times trough earnings per share looks like a very attractive valuation.

There have been rumors of a merger with Ameritrade (AMTD), but I would not expect a deal in the short term as E*Trade gets their house in order. Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia would love to do a deal, I’m sure, but at these prices, E*Trade is better suited fixing their issues and waiting for a more normalized profit picture before entertaining offers that maximize shareholder value. A deal does make sense at some point though, as online brokerage mergers have a ton of synergies that can be realized.

You may be curious if I have bought any ETFC shares yet. The answer is no, but not because I don’t find it an attractive option. It is simply impossible to buy each and every attractive stock when managing fairly concentrated portfolios. There are a lot of financial stocks I think are too cheap, and I own some and don’t own others. It’s just a numbers game really. If you are looking for portfolio additions in that space, E*Trade is definitely one worth considering.

Full Disclosure: No positions in ETFC or AMTD at the time of writing

Examining Dualing Market Outlooks

Does anyone else find it pretty strange that two people can look at the exact same set of data and reach two dramatically different conclusions? I’m speaking of market strategists who try and determine if the overall equity market is overvalued or undervalued. The bulls think we are 20 or 30 percent undervalued and the bears see the exact opposite scenario. How can people differ that much on the outlook for the domestic stock market? It’s not like we’re are trying to value a single company, where I could understand widely varying outlooks. The stock market as a whole can’t be overvalued and undervalued at the same time.

The key to analyze this dichotomy is to look at the S&P 500 P/E ratio, which is the most widely used metric to value the overall market. This isn’t as simple as it sounds though. You arrive at different numbers depending on if you use the trailing twelve month (TTM) P/E or the forward P/E. Personally, I use forward P/E ratios when valuing stocks, because equities are claims on future earnings, not profits already earned. However, the most bearish market strategists use trailing numbers because doing so results in higher P/E ratios, which imply higher valuations. For the purpose of this piece, I’ll use TTM P/E ratios, mainly because historical data is easier to find.

Another point of contention is which earnings calculation to use. The two most commonly cited are operating earnings and GAAP earnings. Operating earnings are meant to gauge how much cash a firm’s operating businesses are generating, whereas GAAP numbers are really more of an accounting standard and don’t always reflect true profitability. For instance, one of the biggest contributors in GAAP earnings is stock options expense. Accountants insist that companies issue GAAP income statements that place a value on expenses incurred by issuing stock options, even though no economic cash cost is incurred.

Currently, the P/E on the S&P 500 index is anywhere between 15.4 (forward operating earnings) and 18.0 (trailing GAAP earnings) depending on which of the four measures (forward vs trailing/operating vs GAAP) you use. I don’t think we need to agree on which P/E to use to analyze whether or not the market is wildly overpriced or underpriced. For the most part, the bears think P/E ratios should be lower, or will be lower shortly. The bulls think if P/E multiples do anything, they should go up, not down.

Keep in mind, I am referring only to those people who think the market is meaningfully mispriced right now, say by 20 percent or more in either direction. I fully understand that this is only a subset of all market pundits. I’m simply interested in looking at the dichotomy that exists between them.

Let’s take a look at an interesting chart that should shed some light on this debate. The graphic below shows the historical trailing P/E of the S&P 500 index (blue) along with a five-year moving average (black).

As you can see from the chart, the stock market typically trades at a P/E of between 10 and 20. Depending on which number you use, we are currently either right smack in the middle of that range, or on the upper end of it. If you are using P/E ratios as your yardstick, you really can’t make a compelling argument that stock prices are dramatically too high or too low.

The real question in this analysis, if we assume the historical range is a pretty good guide to stock market valuation, is whether we should be closer to 10 or 20. How much investors are willing to pay for equities can depend on many variables, but the most important ones are interest rates and inflation. Don’t take my word for it though, both logic and historical statistics back up this assertion.

Since stock prices reflect future earnings discounted back to present day values, there is a negative correlation between interest rates and stock prices. When rates are low, investors are willing to pay higher multiples of earnings, and vice versa. Inflation measures have the same effect on demand for equities. When inflation is high, the “real” (net of inflation) return on stocks goes down or becomes negative, which crimps investor demand for equities, lowering multiples.

Since the economic backdrop is crucial in determining the appropriate valuation level for stocks, the fact that the United States currently is operating a growing economy in a low interest rate, low inflation environment sheds a great deal of light into where stock prices might trade. The middle or upper end of the historical range is not only not unrealistic, but it makes a lot of sense.

Making the argument that P/E ratios should be dramatically higher is simply not prudent given the historical data. Defending a P/E toward the low end of the range also isn’t very compelling given the current economic backdrop. As a result, I think a simple look at history, coupled with a basic overview of current economics, shows that the market is neither wildly overvalued, nor wildly undervalued.

So Much For That Theory

If you want to know just how difficult it is to predict short term market events, such as interest rate moves, just look at what happened over the last two weeks. I wrote back then about how the futures market was pricing in a 50 basis point rate cut and postulated that the odds of no cut or only 25 basis points appeared to be much higher than the market was indicating. It turns out that neither the market nor my contrarian view two weeks ago turned out to be right.

By the time the Fed meeting came around yesterday afternoon, the market was only expecting 25 basis points, which I obviously agreed with. Then out of nowhere we get a 50 basis point cut, the bulls were ecstatic and the shorts got burned big time. The end result was a 336 point jump on the Dow, the biggest single day point gain in about 5 years.

Rather than try and predict why the Fed did what they did, or what they will do in the future, let’s focus on what yesterday’s action does. First and foremost it was a positive symbolic move that the Fed does have the market’s back. We can argue if such a role is in their official job description or not, but that’s another conversation entirely. I’m not sure why they waited so long if they thought a dramatic 50 basis point cut was needed, but maybe they are hoping decisive action will prevent further deterioration that would require more cuts in the future.

An important point regarding rates is the effect on the housing and mortgage markets. Remember, for all of those home owners who will desperately be trying to refinance their adjustable rate mortgages into fixed rate loans, this rate cut won’t help them. Fixed rate mortgage rates are based on long term bond rates, not the Fed Funds or Discount rate. The move will help those with variable rate home equity loans and credit card debt (which are generally based on the Prime rate), but I don’t think a half a point change in rate, or even a full percentage point if we get more cuts later on, will dramatically alter the ability of consumers to pay their bills on time.

The main problem with the housing market is supply and demand and overly excessive pricing. Despite press reports to the contrary, most people can get a mortgage if they want to buy a house. For those sub-prime borrowers who can’t get a loan, now isn’t the time they’ be looking for one anyway (they have already gone down that road). Instead, they will either be forced pay their mortgage, refinance into a fixed rate mortgage (which the banks can make a profit on and therefore are willing to offer), or lose their home and begin renting again.

So what will really help the ailing housing market? In my view, above all else, it’s reasonable pricing. Not only can most people still get loans, but another myth out there is that you can’t sell your house. Well, that’s not really true. What is true is that you can’t get top dollar for your house or always make a profit on every property that you purchase. However, if you price your home competitively, you will find buyers.

Want proof? How about what Hovnanian Enterprises (HOV), one of the larger home builders in the country, did recently. HOV just completed a 3-day sale on their homes, which they dubbed the “The Deal of the Century,” where they slashed prices by up to 25% or $100,000 in an effort to get rid of inventory. The results were beyond impressive. Hovnanian either sold or received deposits on 2,100 homes in just 72 hours. That compares with 2,539 homes sold in the entire quarter ending July 31st!

Now, some press reports compared these numbers directly to gauge the sale’s impact, which is not correct given the 2,100 number was gross sales and 2,539 was a net sales figure. If you use HOV’s most recent cancellation rate of 35% you get net 72-hour sales of 1,365 homes. But still, the implications are very strong. If you price your homes aggressively as HOV did, there are plenty of willing buyers. By doing so, Hovnanian sold more than 6 weeks’ worth of homes in only 72 hours.

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

Best Buy Crushes Estimates, Silences Consumer Worries

Judging from the stock market in recent months, one would think that every consumer related area is extremely weak. The worst performing groups by far this year have been consumer credit focused financials and retail. I continue to bottom fish in these areas because the stocks are pricing in some very dire profit outlooks, which I don’t entirely agree with.

Results this morning from Best Buy (BBY) seem to support the claim that the consumer is not in as bad a shape as many would have you believe. In case you missed it, Best Buy reported earnings (for the quarter ending September 1st) of 55 cents per share, an impressive 11 cents above estimates of 44 cents. Sales grew 15% with comps rising 3.6%. The company now expects full year earnings to be in the upper half of guidance ($3.00 to $3.15) so we’re likely looking at 2007 profits of around $3.10 per share.

Best Buy stock has been hit hard, closing yesterday at $44+ per share. I think the stock is attractive in the mid forties, as I have written about before (Best Buy Looks Attractive), given a 2007 P/E of 14. Investors are really going to focus on 2008 as we close out this year, and estimates are nearly $3.60 for next year. Should a leading retailer growing its business 15% really trade at 12 times forward earnings? Maybe if the consumer was really, really hurting, but today’s results from Best Buy do little to support that argument.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Best Buy at the time of writing

Crude Oil Might Be Ripe for Some Profit Taking

Short term movements in energy markets are very much tied to supply and demand. Seasonal variations in the dynamics for crude oil and natural gas can allow for some very successful trading in these areas. With crude oil prices sitting around record highs of $79 per barrel, and the summer driving season winding down, it might be prudent to take some chips off the table if you purchased shares of the United States Oil Fund (USO) as I suggested back in January when the crude oil ETF was down 40% from its high.

Since then shares of USO have risen more than 35% to $59.43. This is not to say that I would get off of the energy train for good. But if you have an elevated exposure to crude oil specifically, maybe take some profits. Oil prices could go up further if we get any strong hurricanes in the next month or two, but the seasonal oil play is nearing an end, so lower prices would not be surprising as we head into the winter.

Rather than move out of energy completely, moving some crude oil funds into natural gas would be a good value alternative given that natural gas prices are depressed right now. Winter heating season is coming soon, so there will be more potential catalysts for that commodity in coming months. Natural gas plays would include the previously recommended United States Natural Gas Fund ETF (UNG), Chesapeake Energy (CHK), as well as Select List pick Gastar Exploration (GST).

You may have noticed that Warren Buffett is trimming his position in PetroChina (PTR), the large Chinese oil producer. I doubt these actions are being made on a short term trading prediction (Buffett is the epitome of a long term investor), but it reinforces the need to buy low and sell high to maximize returns.

Crude oil is on a roll right now, and that fact makes it hard for some people to not want to keep riding the wave, but selling into strength is a crucial strategy for those looking to maximize long term investment returns. Buffett’s purchase of PTR as a play on both China and crude oil, before those two areas were popular investments, should go down as one of his best investments in recent history. And yet, he isn’t being shy about taking some profits.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of CHK, GST, and UNG at the time of writing

Insider Selling Could Mean Anything, Whereas Buying Can Only Mean One Thing

At Peridot Capital, I tend to ignore insider selling completely. Sure, a lot of sales inside a company can indicate management feels their stock is overpriced, but there are dozens of other reasons top brass sell stock, and they are never required to give the reason for their actions. Investors should be able to tell if a stock is grossly expensive or not on their own, if they indeed manage their own money, so insider selling data really can’t be relied upon.

Insider buying, however, I believe is crucially important. While I can make a laundry list of reasons why someone chooses to sell a stock, the reasons to buy are much fewer in number. In fact, there’s only one (to make money). It’s not surprising that studies have shown much more meaningful correlation to stock performance and insider buying, as opposed to insider selling. And with that, I’ll leave you with the following Associated Press story that ran on Friday evening. To those who think there are bargains among the wreckage of the latest correction, you’re not the only ones…

AP: Insider Buying Set Records in August

Friday September 7, 6:17 pm ET

NEW YORK (AP) — Insiders purchased shares of their companies’ stock at a record pace in August, analysts said, as credit market deterioration threw stocks into a tailspin during the month. The trend of buying among insiders, who are typically long-term investors, was one of the few bullish signals last month, said, a Web site that tracks insider transactions.Company Insiders Bought Stock at Record Pace in August As Credit Market Woes Stunned Market

According to Thomson Financial, insiders drove buying volumes to their highest monthly levels since 1990, with $465.5 million in purchases.

Insiders in the energy, retail and insurance industries led the buying spree, said analysts in a research report released Wednesday.

In the energy sector, insider buying was at its strongest since the spring of 2005, boosted by large purchases by RPC Inc. Chairman Randall Rollins, Cheniere Energy Partners LP Chief Executive Charif Souki and insiders at other companies. Schlumberger Ltd. Director Michael Marks and Nustar GP Holdings LLC Director William E. Greehey also bought shares as their companies’ stock came down from 52-week highs.

In the retail sector, which was hurt as economic uncertainty slowed shopping this summer, top executives at several companies bought stock as shares fell to 52-week lows in August. American Eagle Outfitters Inc. Chairman Jay Schottenstein and other insiders bought 184,575 shares. Barnes & Noble Inc. Chairman Leonard Riggio bought 100,000 shares, his first purchase in two years. The CEO of Best Buy Co.’s international operations bought 11,300 shares, the largest insider purchase of the electronics retailer’s stock in more than two years.

In the insurance sector, more than 10 insiders bought shares at Conseco Inc. after the company’s stock plunged in August. Also, Prudential Financial Inc. Chief Financial Officer Richard J. Carbone bought 10,000 shares last month. Unitrin Inc. and American Financial Group Inc. were among other insurance providers that reported large insider purchases in August.

In other sectors, Yahoo Inc. President Susan Decker and Director Arthur Kern bought more than 65,000 shares of the Internet search company, which has slipped against rival Google Inc.

Also, three directors of American Express Co. bought 63,000 shares of the credit card company in August.

Fed Fund Futures Could Be Setting Market Up for a September Sell-Off

You would think that with everything Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said publicly thus far regarding the current turmoil in the mortgage and credit markets, the market might be at least somewhat doubting that a Fed Funds rate cut is coming later this month at the next FOMC meeting. After all, Bernanke came out and said the Fed is not responsible for bailing out lenders and consumers who made bad decisions in a loose lending environment. Quotes like that should at least temper people’s expectations a little bit that a rate cut this month is essentially guaranteed. Well, that does not appear to be the case.

As of late Wednesday, a 25 basis point cut was fully priced into the market and there was a whopping 72% chance of a 50 basis point cut also priced into futures quotes. Given the actions we have seen from the Fed thus far (namely choosing to inject liquidity rather than lower interest rates for consumers) and the words they have chosen in public speeches in recent weeks, I have to take “the under” on the Fed Funds futures bet.

Now, that is not to say that there won’t be a rate cut. That could surely happen, and you could justify it several ways. It just seems to me that the Fed wants to try every other option they have at their disposal before giving in with a rate cut, which many see as bailing out people who made ill-advised decisions and thus contributing to a moral hazard issue.

Because of that, I think saying there is a 100% chance of a cut this month is overly optimistic for interest rate bulls. And a 72% chance of a 50 basis point cut is even more aggressive. Right now, I’d put the odds of a cut of any magnitude between 50% and 75% based on what Bernanke has said and done so far.

I bring this up not because I think people should speculate in the futures markets, but because it’s important to understand what is currently priced into the marketplace. If we don’t get a cut later this month, which I think is certainly more probable than the markets currently are telling us, then stocks are going to sell-off. That is what we open ourselves up to when the market prices in something as a certainty even though there is still an undeniable fact that nothing is certain about the September FOMC meeting.

And even if we do get a cut of 25 basis points, we could still see the market not react positively because more than half of people right now expect 50 basis points (who knows what that number will be at meeting time). Just be aware that the risk-reward trade off right now in the short term doesn’t appear all that favorable as long as you assume two things. One, the fed fund futures market accurately gauges what the market is currently pricing into prices. And two, the market will be reacting to interest rate speculation and action in coming weeks.