2020 Crystal Ball

A gentle reminder was provided by the market last week as to its unsettled nature.  Essentially, headline risk is at the forefront tossing the market based on the sentiment of the day – oft times lubricated (or diverted) by a Presidential tweet. Granted, this is little changed from the past but we do have an increasing clarity to use as a guide.

What is unchanged is that US valuations remain elevated.  Sure, there were some stumbles during the recent earnings season and some cautionary guidance presented.  Barring a black swan event it does appear the next recession (US version) has been punted into the future – at a time post election.   There are – and will continue to be – pockets where value can be had, but I see this opportunity being readily available only to individual stock pickers willing to accept a slightly higher risk factor.

Headlines have also illustrated a measured success that Presidential bashing of the Fed failed to accomplish.  The dollar weakened – a little. On the heels of the results from the UK election, Sterling strengthened. My opinion being this is a relief rally at seeing an end to the Brexit saga as the real work now can now begin in earnest.  These negotiations may get bogged down a little – particularly trade – which could provide a reentry point for Labour and their agenda of nationalization. I see the UK as a viable alternative but with risk associated in telecoms, energy, utilities, rail and mail.  Perhaps a mid-term view is required with an entry point sometime after the first of the year.

Much the same boat for China as the renminbi strengthened against the dollar as the news of a “phase 1” agreement on trade crossed the wires.  What this means probably remains debatable, but if a truce is effective going into the new year it is a likely positive for US equities, tempered by the fact that their currency is a daily peg rather than free-float.  The risk here is twofold – on and off again tariffs and US involvement in their political affairs (Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act). The bills appear to be more show than substance but could flare tensions. The investment thesis should note the alleged Human Rights abuses along with the minimal sanction levels.  If these pitfalls are successfully navigated, opportunities do exist.

Then there are the fintech darlings, the newest variant being the so-called ‘Challenger Banks” or neobanks.  Though awash with cash from private funding rounds, they all have one glaring defect – they aren’t really banks.  They are apps – generally mobile – with a compelling interface and a few niche benefits targeting the millennial audience.  A couple have started the process to really become banks but most are content to partner with real banks – sweeping funds into accounts that have FDIC insurance.  My research remains incomplete but with three exceptions, the partner banks pay no dividend or are private. I currently own the exceptions, GS, JPM and WSFS but don’t expect the challenger funds to be a significant revenue driver.

Perhaps the largest driver of ‘hot air’ time in the new year will be the election.  The obvious beneficiaries being media companies who are able to capitalize on both sides of an argument.  However fragmentation, targeting and scope make it more difficult to call any winners unless any campaign goes on a deep targeting offensive which would benefit social.  From a messaging position, only health care moves the needle much where companies like UNH, HUM and CVS stand to benefit as the attacks subside.

The commonality between these issues?  None are long term. Yet the nature of capitalism is its’ cyclical nature.  There is always a correction to drain the excesses. The timing and severity are always debatable, but rest assured one will arrive.  My approach to the new year will be to take some marbles off the table by pruning some non-core positions and reassessing some strategic plays. To place this in context, I have three new positions on my watchlist and ten to fifteen under review which if fully implemented would be roughly a 5% churn rate.  My comfort zone is now squarely with Staples and Utilities … items necessary for consumer consumption regardless of the overall economy. Yes, the upside is muted with these companies, but more importantly the downside risk is mitigated. A rising dividend stream exceeding the rate of inflation is the core goal in these times in spite of politics or political persuasion.

And so goes my crystal ball for 2020 …

Trump-Tied Banks

Headline Risk

the possibility that a news story will adversely affect a stock’s price

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/headline-risk.asp

As my readers are aware, for a variety of reasons I’ve had an affinity for the banking sector following the financial crisis. Outside the rants of a few of the current presidential contenders highlighting abuses against the ‘normal people’, this sector has been relatively subdued albeit with a major storm cloud brewing on the horizon. This formation hit my radar with the August 19th, 2018 article in the American Banker. Since then, I’ve been tracking the progress of this storm to either identify a manner to profit from the event, to see if it dissipates or if it evolves into a black swan.

This week, the storm finally arrived although I have yet to batten down the hatches. My sense of urgency to publish my findings only increased when I ran across a piece by one of our own, All About Interest, in determining a possible investment in Citizens Financial Group (CFG). My response was: Tending to err with an abundance of caution, I would dig much deeper on CFG. Their former parent had financial issues (hence the spinoff) and most recently has been the associated with Manafort loans (speculation is they are ‘Lender B’ in the Mueller report). Another bank with Manafort ties (BANC) last week cut their dividend by 53.8% – although this could be unrelated and pure coincidence. Basically pointing out a basic flaw in pure DGI screening methodology – Headline Risk.

  • CFG has had a troubled history probably due to its’ former parent, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) (IPO’d in 2014, fully divested in 2015)
  • CFG was apparently “Lender B” in the Mueller Report with questionable loans to Manafort (perhaps a coincidence, they issued $300m in stock as Series D preferred in January)
  • Another bank involved in Manafort loans, BANC, announced a dividend cut of 53.8% effective July (I can’t say if there is a correlation)
  • An indictment against another Manafort lender, Federal Savings Bank (pvt) CEO Stephen Calk, was unsealed after I posted my comment (alleging his personal actions to bypass standard loan processes resulted in a $16m loss to the institution)

Certainly enough thunder to keep me away from an investment in any of these. My count indicates the Trump 8 identified by the American Banker has more than doubled and now stands at 15 – some of which I’m invested in. I’ve basically categorized them into Questionable, Cooperator, Cautionary, Litigant in addition to the three Culpables addressed previously. This is not to imply any wrongdoing – only one of the barometers I use to assess relative safety and mitigate Headline Risk.

QUESTIONABLEhave issues that are unsettling to my investment philosophy

  • Sterling National Bank (SNL) – provided financing for Cohen’s taxi-medallion business
  • Signature Bank (SBNY) – allegedly lent money to real estate developers, (including Kushner’s family) that used improper tactics to push out low rent tenants. Ivanka served on the board between 2011 and 2013.

CAUTIONARYhave potential exposure but appear to be on the right track

  • First Republic Bank (FRC) – filed a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) on flow through money related to the Stormy Daniels payment and a Columbus Nova payment (Russian Billionaire company)
  • Royal Bank of Canada (RY) – McDougal and Daniels payments were allegedly made through a City National account (now RY). It appears the SARS report was filed late probably found by RY through a merger related audit. They are also cooperating on Congressional subpoenas, although a deadline was missed. (own RY)

COOPERATORbased on the Bank Secrecy Act, which allows Congress access to financial information to search for money laundering (all owned except MS)

  • Toronto-Dominion (TD) – provided documents
  • Wells Fargo (WFC) – provided documents
  • Citigroup (C) – missed subpoena deadline
  • Morgan Stanley (MS) – missed subpoena deadline
  • JPMorgan Chase (JPM) – missed subpoena deadline
  • Bank of America (BAC) – missed subpoena deadline

LITIGATORSTrump (Pres., family, companies, foundation) suing to block release of information (lost the first round this past week) (none owned)

  • Deutsche Bank (DB) – Lawsuit under appeal by Trump
  • Capital One (COF) – Lawsuit under appeal by Trump

I can kind of understand the appeals related to his personal financials except where inter-related with SARS filings. In hindsight, this is perhaps a textbook case for use of a blind trust – which as we all know was not done.

In this group, TD has about 1.48% of my portfolio and RY about 0.58%. The others I own are about 0.25% each – therefore my exposure to possible downside risk is minimal. Of the ones not owned, the only one I would currently consider is FRC on weakness. The common thread being compliance to current laws.

Do you account for Headline Risk? Hope you all have a wonderful holiday weekend!

Crazy Free

I decided to pause my 3Rs series to review one particular event of this past week.  No, not the political spectrum (guilty pleas/verdicts in the US and a new PM in Australia) but the bloodbath incurred in the discount broker space following JP Morgan’s announcement of the commencement of a free trade platform.  In the event you missed it, the Tuesday morning market shudder (per Seeking Alpha) was:

Online brokers slump in premarket trading after JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM) says it’s introducing a mobile investing app bundled with free or discounted trades.

TD Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD) slides 6.5%, Charles Schwab (NYSE:SCHW) -4.9%,  E*Trade (NASDAQ:ETFC-4.5%, Interactive Brokers (NASDAQ:IBKR-3.5%.

JPMorgan +0.7% in premarket trading.

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Moral Investing

Making the headlines this past week was the atrocious scene along our border.  Being an event driven investor, I had to at least take a look at the situation to – at a minimum – determine my exposure and whether strategy adjustments are  necessary.

I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination but (outside of ETFs) have never invested in tobacco stocks.  I have minimal exposure to wine and spirits.  While I’m not casting aspersions on those that do, I figure there are more than enough alternatives that better fit my preferences.

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April Showers

Below the shifting landscape that debates the notion as to whether tariffs are a negotiating ploy or the real deal, some pig farmers are now operating at a loss of thousands of dollars per week (futures markets have priced in tariffs) and soybean growers are considering whether to reduce their plantings to avoid the same fate.  Meanwhile the impact on our NAFTA partners is also being considered across the borders.  Canada can increase their soybean and pork sales to China but the net impact will still be negative to them considering the magnitude of trade volumes.  Mexico is expanding ties to China in an effort to mitigate the ‘Trump’ effect.  All the while, the administration has to be aware that China holds the ultimate ‘trump’ card in the debt held.  Some bearish views posit US interest rates could rise to 14% if China ceases their bond purchases.

With these headlines staring at us, it would be excusable to have missed some of the underlying news – one being in healthcare.  Two of my companies made the news this past week with possible or rumored deals; Shire (SHPG) and Humana (HUM).  Takeda’s interest in Shire has all the appearances of industry consolidation, Wal-Mart and Humana’s discussions are more along the lines of being one of the last gorillas.

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Snake(like) Investors

Being in bed following a minor medical procedure yesterday brought me full frontal to the shenanigans playing out on the ‘news’ shows.  Edited clips framed to curry favor depending on the audience is the rule.  No longer can we – the consumer – decide whether a story is right or wrong without blatant editorializing.  As Sammy Davis, Jr. aptly stated in reference to The Huntley–Brinkley Report, “My only contact with reality. Whatever I’m doing, I stop to watch these guys.”  (Life magazine, 1964).  Or as Warren Buffett writes in his recent letter, “… media reports sometimes highlight figures that unnecessarily frighten or encourage many readers or viewers.”

My contact with reality was found in the (probably edited) recitation by our president of the lyrics to a song in his speech to CPAC members.

“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
The Snake by Oscar Brown, Jr., 1963

Applause erupted, a pregnant pause ensued, before he mentioned the words “immigration”.  I really thought he was referring to himself for a minute.  But it does provide a decent lead into this weeks’ post.

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Volatility Returns!

With the wild ride in the markets this week, I perused some of the community’s blogs to gauge the reaction.  While not meeting scientific norms regarding sample size, I was surprised by the lack of reference to the pullback in 66% of them – including ones with posts as recent as yesterday.  Perhaps it’s a lack of funds to take advantage or the deer in the headlights syndrome.  One blog, Fully Franked Finance, had a timely piece a few days prior which stated the importance of a ‘shopping list’ – as many others also encourage.  I too, engage in a strategy which emulates  the ‘shopping list’ strategy.  So, what were my moves so far this month?

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