Covering the Tivo Short

I’ve decided to cover my short position in Tivo (TIVO) a little earlier than expected. The stock was trading at $12 per share last year when it became fairly obvious that cable giants like Comcast (CMCSA) were not going to partner with Tivo, but rather build proprietary DVR technology into their own digital set-top boxes. This development left little room for Tivo to differentiate itself enough to outdual the cable companies in providing a soon-to-be standard feature.

With the premise that Tivo’s fundamentals were going to be in steady decline, and profitability was years off (if ever in the cards), covering the short wasn’t something I was really considering. However, with today’s announcement of Tivo’s 3 millionth subscriber, I once again found myself looking at the stock’s valuation. After a precipitous drop from $12 to $3 and change, the time has come to take my profits off the table.

The financials are still pretty ugly. Sales for 2005 are expected to be just under $200 million, with a net loss of approximately $25 million. Tivo has boosted marketing expenses recently as it realized that its partnership with DirecTV will become less and less valuable over time. As a result, it wouldn’t surprise me if sales come in ahead of expectations this year, but losses are higher than anticipated.

The losses are less of a concern given that Tivo has little debt and a sizeable cash position. Further funding may be required later on, depending on how well increased marketing spend boosts sales and its impact on margins, but for right now the company is okay financially.

With the stock up 5% on the subscriber figures, the market cap is about $300 million, or about $100 per subscriber. This valuation seems to be very reasonable to me, and I have a tough time making the case it should be lower than that. As a result, today I am moving on to bigger and better opportunities.

A Double Top on the S&P 500?

I rarely put much emphasis on technical analysis of individual stocks. Reading charts can work, but only in the absence of material new information. Without meaningful newsflow, technical indicators will often hold up because everybody is looking at the same thing and traders will act similarly, thereby allowing the technical analysis to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, as soon as the company reports earnings, receives an analyst upgrade, or announces a merger (among dozens of other possible catalysts), chart reading goes out the window in favor of a necessary revaluation of the company’s shares based on new revelations.

With indexes, however, technical analysis has a bit more merit. Many hedge funds trade the indexes as a whole, as well as individual stocks. Newsflow for an entire index, the S&P 500 for example, doesn’t occur. The S&P doesn’t report earnings. Wall Street research departments don’t have analysts covering indexes. As a result, the double top that formed recently on the S&P 500 could be concerning.

Traders focused on indexes could very well use that formation as a reason to sell, and not only their index ETF’s and futures, but their stock holdings as well (based not on company fundamentals but rather index technicals). Despite a nice move higher in February, the market is still down for the year, as January’s drop has yet to be fully recouped.

If we can’t break the overhead resistance in the 1,212-1,213 area on the S&P, the recent rally might not continue very much longer. Interestingly, the market opened the year at 1,212, which turned out to be the high for this week before we headed south once again.

So Much for the Google Lock-Up Expiration

Google (GOOG) shares are up another $3 this morning after rising nearly $6 yesterday, the first day every share of the Internet search company was available for sale. It appears that demand for the shares is more than adequate to soak up a little extra supply (little because any shares that will be sold by company insiders will be unloaded in a slow and orderly fashion, as opposed to all at once).

What lies ahead for Google in the short to intermediate term? How about inclusion in the S&P 500? With a market cap of more than $50 billion, Google would find itself in the top quintile of companies in the index (based on market cap) upon its addition. With so many mergers and acquisitions being announced recently (AT&T and Gillette are two examples of S&P companies that will need to be replaced), it is only a matter of time before index funds will have to gobble up Google shares.

The largest S&P 500 fund, Vanguard Index 500, had $106.6 billion in assets as of 12/31/04. If Google was added to the S&P today, that fund alone would need to purchase more than $500 million in stock, about 1% of the company’s total outstanding shares. As a result, the announcement of Google’s inclusion in the S&P 500 will only serve to further buoy the stock price, and help to absorb the recently increased float.

More Tech Talk

I feel as though my recent writings are all about technology stocks. They shouldn’t be though. All of the portfolios I manage are fully diversified and none of them have more than a market weighting in TMT (tech, media, & telecom). That could be changing though, if recent events are any indication.

The reason why I am typing away about tech more often these days is simply because that’s where I’m finding value. There are still a decent amount of undervalued investment opportunities in energy and other commodity-related companies. But aside from that, I’ve been uncovering tons of ideas within the software space, as well as Internet companies.

You’re probably thinking “yeah right.” He thinks Google (GOOG) is a value at 47 times forward earnings, but that’s not really “value.” I do still like Google because it’s the fastest growing tech company around and despite rising 100% since its IPO, it still trades at a discount to eBay (EBAY) and Yahoo! (YHOO), with stronger fundamentals. The fact that the stock was up $6 today, the very day 177 million shares were free to be sold by company insiders and early investors, shows that I’m not alone in that thinking. However, let’s assume that a 47 multiple is high enough to still scare most people away. That’s perfectly understandable, even if I think that will prove to be the wrong decision.

For the first time ever, I’ve been finding Internet stocks that trade at a discount to their growth rates. That’s pretty rare in any industry, but especially in tech. Nasdaq stocks will always trade at a premium to the S&P 500, as investors look there in hopes of finding the next Microsoft (MSFT). So you can imagine what happens when Internet stocks that trade at market multiples begin to pop up on my radar screen. These companies are growing 20% to 30% percent a year, have loads of cash on their balance sheets (which is mostly being used for small acquisitions as opposed to dividends), and like many technology companies, no debt to speak of.

Let me give you a couple of examples. As always, assume that if I am saying bullish things about certain stocks that I either own them already, or am strongly considering a purchase. The first is Ask Jeeves (ASKJ: $23). Now some people will just laugh at this. Why would you want to buy Ask Jeeves? I must be kidding, right? Rather than think about who Jeeves is (which I must admit doesn’t scream “buy my stock!”) let’s look at what really matters; the numbers. ASKJ is expected to grow earnings 30% in 2005 and 20% in 2006.

Normally I would guess a stock like this would be trading at 40 or 50 times earnings and I wouldn’t even consider buying it. However, the P/E on 2005 numbers is 16.9x. That’s right, the same multiple as the S&P 500 index, only with more than twice the growth. Two things jump out a me about this company. One, it shouldn’t be trading at a market multiple. And two, if another Internet search company bought ASKJ, it would be ridiculously accretive to earnings.

The next stock is InfoSpace (INSP: $43). A very similar situation to Ask Jeeves. INSP is in paid search, as well as services for mobile phones, like ring tone downloads. Earnings are expected to jump 32% in 2005 and another 31% in 2006. The company has no debt and $9 per share in cash (which has been used for several small acquisitions in recent years and will likely continue). Strip out the cash and you get a share price of $34 and a 2005 P/E of 18.7x. Again, if someone like Yahoo! was to buy a company like this, it would add to earnings immediately, given that Yahoo! trades at over 50 times earnings.

The best explanation for why these lesser known Internet stocks are so cheap compared with the likes of giants Google and Yahoo! is that they are second tier players. Many growth investors simply go with the biggest company in the area they want to invest in. However, smaller firms like ASKJ and INSP have proved that there is room for them too and they continue to grow handsomely under the radar.

I really think eventually Wall Street will realize this and give them a higher market value. They may still trade at a discount to the industry bellwethers, but a 25 or 3o P/E seems attainable as soon as the Street realizes how cheap these stocks are and that these companies can survive. I wouldn’t be surpruised if other companies realize this first, and scoop them up before they are in higher demand.

Examining Changes to the Dow 30 Components

Every few years investors hear of impending changes to the Dow Jones Average, the broad index of 30 industrial stocks created by Charles Dow in 1897, widely used as a stock market barometer. For the majority of the 20th century, changes to the index’s components were rare. Only when one of the 30 stocks was acquired by another company would they be replaced, and the new addition would usually be in the same industry as its predecessor.

However, with the bull market of the 1990’s, Dow Jones & Company (DJ), the publisher of the index, began changing the group of 30 stocks even without any news of a merger. With stock prices rising at a rapid pace, cheerleaders for stock ownership were everywhere. Dow Jones & Company figured it could boost stock prices even more by replacing underperforming companies with better ones.

Rather than saying they wanted to boost the Dow’s performance, those who orchestrated the changes justified such actions be claiming that the new index “better represented the country’s ever-changing economy.” Basically, even though we still filled up our cars’ gas tanks at Chevron stations and wrote on paper made by International Paper, these companies really weren’t good gauges of the so-called “new economy.” With the advent of the digital camera, somehow Kodak no longer deserved to be in the Dow, despite billions of dollars in annual sales and owner of one of the country’s more prominent brands.

Were these changes really necessary? I was never a big fan of them. Companies go through ups and downs. Businesses are cyclical. When oil prices are low, companies like Chevron won’t make very much money and their stock prices won’t perform very well. Does that mean we should boot them from the Dow? Probably not. Nonetheless, since 1999 exactly 7 of the Dow’s 30 stocks have been replaced due to economical irrelevency (read “bad stock performance”).

Not being a big proponent of bandwagons as far as stocks are concerned, I am truly excited to have discovered yet another contrarian indicator for stocks. Think about it. Dow Jones boots a poorly performing stock and adds an elite name to the index. Isn’t this the perfect contrarian indicator for someone who loves buying out-of-favor stocks? After all, if you get booted from the Dow, your company must really be down in the dumps. And if you are the lucky company to be named a replacement, you really must have done well lately.

So, the next time a change is made to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, I will be trading on the news. I’ll short the stock that gets added and pair that trade with the purchase of the company that got the axe. Will this strategy work, you ask? Well, let’s take a closer look at how the aforementioned 7 alterations since 1999 have fared after the changes took effect.

On November 1, 1999, four stocks were removed from the Dow; Chevron (CVX), Goodyear Tire (GT), Sears (S), and Union Carbide (UK). Not surprisingly, they were replaced by some bull market high-fliers; Home Depot (HD), Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), and SBC Communications (SBC).

Less than five years later, in April 2004, more changes were announced. This time 3 companies were replaced. American International Group (AIG), Pfizer (PFE), Verizon (VZ) took over for AT&T (T), Eastman Kodak (EK), and International Paper (IP).

Dow Jones & Company, as well as most investors, were probably thrilled with the decision to replace these “old economy” stocks with newer, faster growing market darlings. The great news (if you’re looking for contrarian investment opportunities) is that the performances of the two groups of stocks has been quite a dichotomy, just not in the way many would have expected.

Of the 7 stocks deleted from the Dow since 1999, 3 of them were either acquired or are in the process of being acquired (Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, Sears is going to be bought by Kmart, and AT&T is going to be purchased by fellow Dow member SBC Communications). All told, on average, the seven deleted stocks have risen by a staggering 227% since their removal. That equates to a return of more than 32% each.

While those returns are impressive, they won’t make for much of a contrarian investment strategy unless the ones that replaced them gained less than 32% on average. Amazingly, the 7 stocks added to the Dow haven’t gone up at all. In fact, they’ve lost a combined 155% since they were added to the index, for a loss of 22% each. Only one of the seven has risen in price (Verizon) and its shares are up a meager 2%.

Hopefully more changes to the Dow are coming, for contrarian investors’ sake anyway.

The Internet Bubble Revisited

As we approach the five year anniversary of the end of the greatest bull market ever, it still confounds us how crazy valuations actually were back in March of 2000. Metrics were being created on the fly by analysts to justify price targets since traditional price-to-earnings and price-to-book ratios could not be determined without profits or tangible assets. Page views actually seemed like the perfect means to value shares of Yahoo (YHOO) to many people. After all, the company was an Internet portal, not an online store or auction site.

I was not immune to this either, of course. I recall a favorite metric of mine at the time was to look at relative price-to-sales ratios. If you had three companies in the same market, but one traded at 12x sales and the other two traded at 20x, you could pretty much assume that if you bought the cheaper one some analyst would come along and point out the “mis-pricing” and before you knew it your stock was fetching 20x as well.

I bring this up, not to blast buyers of Sirius at $9, Taser a $30, or Travelzoo at $100, but instead to point out that some of these profitless companies actually did survive. Most have changed business models (or businesses for that matter) several times since 2000, and very few have the same management teams in place. Those former Internet entrepreneurs have long since cashed in their stock options and left the spotlight.

An example of the aforementioned transformation is Ariba (ARBA). Now, Ariba has a special place in my heart. I never owned the stock, but I went to college with the daughter of one of the company’s earliest employees. My discovery that my dorm room neighbor’s dad had worked for and knew the company’s co-founder and former CEO, Keith Krach, actually was the launching pad for our friendship.

How is this important, other than to rekindle my college memories and remind me that I haven’t talked to that very friend in a couple of years? Well, it appears even though I missed out on the stock’s tremendous run in 1999 and 2000, I may be getting a second chance to make money on the shares of the business-to-business software company. After hitting a high of more than $1,140 per share (split adjusted) five years ago, the stock currently trades at $8, down some 99.3 percent.

With $130 million in cash, no debt, and $360 million in sales expected in fiscal 2005 (ending September 30th), the stock looks very cheap. Ariba just completed the acquisition of Free Markets (another former Internet high-flier) and is in fact growing again. Net of cash, investors today are paying about $6.25 per share and 1.1x revenue for $0.35 in earnings per share in 2005 and $0.56 in 2006. If the company can indeed hit its numbers, there is little chance the stock will continue to trade at 11 times projected 2006 profits.

Krispy Kreme Bankrupt?

While I haven’t been short Krispy Kreme (KKD) stock over the last year, I wish I had been. The shares have fallen from $40 each to $7 today, an all-time low. Having ignored this stock since the IPO due to a terribly high valuation and a personal preference for the product at Dunkin Donuts, I finally decided to do some due diligence this week after hearing whispers of the company’s ultimate demise.

As a contrarian, whenever I hear rumors of possible bankruptcy, I take notice. Often times people spread bankruptcy rumors when they are short a particular stock, regardless of whether the risk is really there or not. One of my best trades in recent years was picking up shares of then-troubled Nextel (NXTL) in 2002 when the stock was pricing in tremendous bankruptcy risk due to a mountain of debt.

After carefully examining the company’s finances, investors would have realized that although debt levels were too high, the company’s wireless business was so strong that cash flow from operations would be able to cover the firm’s interest expense. The Nextel story is about to be closed, as Sprint (FON) has agreed to buy the company for about $30 per share. Not bad for a stock that bottomed out at $2 per share less than three years ago.

Back to Krispy Kreme. As you may have read in recent months, KKD has had poor accounting practices in the past, resulting in a CEO resignation recently. Evidently, the company has used the repurchase of stores from franchise owners to boost financial results. In the midst of a full accounting review, the company missed its deadline to file financial statements for the last quarter, due in late January.

Normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The company’s new management is on track to clean up the books, file financial statements, and move on to turnaround the company’s business. However, KKD has a $150 million credit facility that freezes should the company miss a regulatory filing deadline, which it did. Given the internal accounting probes, numerous legal issues, and restructuring going on right now, KKD needs some additional cash to weather the storm and continue to fund operations. But since their credit facility is frozen, they can’t borrow any money until they file.

As a result, newly appointed CEO Steven Cooper is scrambling to cut costs in order to ensure they don’t run out of money before they can tap their credit. KKD’s creditors have extended a deadline for the financials until late March, so current cash must last for six more weeks, assuming the March deadline can be made. To help, the company has sold its corporate jet (why did they have one to begin with?) for $30 million and announced plans to lay off 25% of its workforce at the company’s corporate headquarters.

The interesting thing about this whole story is the talk of possible bankruptcy. KKD is hardly overly leveraged. They have about $120 million in total debt, but the interest rate is less than 3 percent. Operations generate positive free cash flow and the company’s tangible net assets are more than $250 million. Sales at KKD’s 435 stores nationwide are $700 million annually. Interest expense ran $1.4 million last quarter, hardly dramatic.

While I still have some DD to do today on KKD shares, it appears that the largest issue with the company is not its debt load, but rather the ability of their accountants to file accurate financial statements. The company’s operations can adequately fund the debt after these legal and regulatory issues have been resolved. Of course, there is always a chance that things could get worse and they would not hit their deadlines. However, it seems unlikely that the creditors would choose to force KKD into default when the operations seem not only salvageable, but also potentially extremely valuable.

As for trading this situation, it depends on which side of the fence you fall on. I haven’t made a conclusion yet, and don’t know if I will opt to put on a trade or not, but you really have two choices that make sense. If you think bankruptcy is a real option, then short the common stock and buy some calls to hedge your position. If you think they’ll survive, buy the common along with some puts to protect you, should they happen to file Chapter 11.

Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do

It is always interesting to watch a stock price jump 10 percent on news that the company’s CEO has resigned. Although the headlines will use the word “resign” it is clear that Hewlett Packard (HPQ) chief executive Carly Fiorina was forced out after she orchestrated a horrendous Compaq acquisition.

Maybe now Hewlett will do what they should have done long ago; spin off their crown jewel printing business. Rather than focus on higher margin products (such as plastic containers of ink that sell for $30), Fiorina opted to add scale by gobbling up Compaq, forming (at the time) the largest personal computer maker in the world. The only problem was that with razor thin margins, tech companies were trying to flee that business, and for good reason.

Fiorina thought she could get bigger, take market share, and make money selling computers through various channels such as retail outlets and large tech distributors. As she would find out later, there was a reason why no other company had been able to accomplish that feat. Dell (DELL) continued to take market share as players in the PC market diminished. Gateway bought eMachines, IBM sold its PC biz to Lenovo, Packard Bell disappeared.

So, what should HP focus on now? How about the printer business? Hewlett’s printing division accounted for 90 percent of HPQ’s operating income in fiscal 2004. Using Lexmark (LXK) as a guide, the unit as a stand-alone company would be worth two-thirds of HPQ’s current market value, despite only representing a third of total sales. With shareholder value unlocked, the new CEO would focus on the rest of the company’s operations and hopefully find a way to be a profitable number two player behind Dell in personal computers, servers, and storage.

It won’t be easy, but with Carly gone, the transformation that should have been attempted years ago can finally get started, if the board chooses to go in that direction.

Google Delivers

Updating last week’s piece on Google (GOOG), it appears the bullish stance was the correct one. The company blew away Q4 profit estimates last night, and the stock opened up $23 a share as 2005 EPS numbers will be revised from $3.40 to $4.00. Worries about the Valentine’s Day lock-up combined with some investors lightening up positions after today’s huge move could very well cause GOOG to give back some of the gain short-term. However, don’t think that a 200 handle on Google is far-fetched.

In another wonderful analyst call, the Internet analyst for Jefferies & Co. raised his rating from hold to buy this morning, at $215 a share. Hardly a helpful call, given that the same guy pulled his buy rating last year when the stock was $135. I guess $135 didn’t warrant an investment, but a $215 price tag does.

Oddly enough, Jefferies’ 2005 and 2006 EPS estimates are of some value to investors, as they try to determine fair value for GOOG shares. His 2005 EPS number goes to $3.99, with 2006 upped to $5.40 per share. His price objective of $230 sounds about right to me. I’m using a 60x multiple on $4 EPS, to get to a $240 price target. Any near-term weakness for the rest of the month will allow investors to get in before we get there.

When Do You Buy Pfizer?

A one-year chart of Pfizer (PFE) looks more like a black diamond slope in Vail than a stock price graph. The stock has fallen almost 40 percent over the last 12 months. Now, at$24 per share, you hear a lot of recommendations to buy PFE. The 3.1 percent dividend yield is very attractive, combined with a 2005 p/e ratio of less than 12.

After holding off in the low 30’s and high 20’s, Pfizer shares at today’s prices don’t have too much downside if you want to try and catch a falling knife. A Celebrex withdrawal would prompt significant selling, but aside from that, most of the bad news has been priced in.

The issue really is growth. Money managers on CNBC will exclaim that Pfizer hasn’t traded at 11 or 12 times earnings in years, with historical p/e ratios ranging from 17 to 30 times over the last decade. The problem is, Pfizer was growing nicely back then, at a 15 percent annual rate. Those days appear to be over as mergers have created a company with more than $52 billion in sales. At this point, a new blockbuster drug (defined as $1 billion in annual sales) contributes less than 2 percent to Pfizer’s total sales.

As a result, sales are expected to be essentially flat. The current 2006 revenue estimate for Pfizer is less than 2 percent higher than the company’s actual 2004 sales. While 11 or 12 times eanrings may be too modest a valuation, the days of 17-30 multiples on the major drug companies are over in my opinion.