30 October, 2007

Markets slide Tuesday, Proctor & Gamble quarterly disappoints, Tech Stays Afloat

Markets traded lower ahead of the Federal Reserve Interest Rate decision. Consumer staple Proctor & Gamble (PG) was down about 4% as quarterly results disappointed the Street. Technology stayed flat as announcements of announcements from Google (GOOG) and super sales of Apple's (AAPL) Leopard Operating System lifted Techs.

As Halloween approached for the Children, adults focused on the other Wicked Witch of the West; The Federal Reserve. The Fed proved it can move markets tremendously with its last rate cut and Investors are expecting another .25% rate drop this time around. This will be the single biggest trading issue throughout the rest of the week.

Consumer staple Proctor & Gamble fell after it posted results and an outlook that disappointed Wall Street. Traders took the opportunity to get out of this defensive play near its 52-week high. Shares fell almost $3 or 4%. Not to say the selling was only in defensive plays, the expectations game caught up to Casino high fliers Wynn (WYNN) and Las Vegas Sands (LVS). After starting the day higher, nearing $176/share, Wynn drifted lower, eventually closing down almost 3%. Results caused the stock to take a hit in the after market and Wynn gaped down another 5% to $159. While not yet reporting, LVS was hit by the general downtrend, losing 4% in the regular session and another 3% in after hours trading. Steady as a lion MGM Mirage (MGM) lost only a couple percentage points overall maintaining above $90/share.

In Technology news, Google and Apple were both making headlines. Apple announced that it had sold 2 Million copies already of its new Leopard Operating System in its first weekend of release. Pretty amazing considering that an OS upgrade is not something the typical computer user looks forward to, and also given the fact that there are only about 20 Million Mac systems that could upgrade to Leopard. Google announced an announcement of sorts. The Wall Street Journal reported that Google will soon be ready to announce its much anticipated mobile software plans. This was big news to investors and it caused the stock to gap higher approaching $700/share. In fact stopped mere cents from the milestone. Google's well documented attempt to purchase DoubleClick was given the okay in Australia paving the way for further OKs down the line from other Governments.

Tomorrow will bring with it further anticipation, uneasiness and fear regarding the Fed; Investors and Traders alike need to be aware and in fact ready for just about anything. This life brings with it few guarantees and the Stock Market brings even less.

29 October, 2007

Markets Advance ahead of Fed Meeting, Oil hits New Record

Overall trading tones were positive on Monday and stocks advanced on both sides of the North American border. Canada's TSX advanced almost 1% while Major American indices were up about half a percent. Oil prices continued to climb near $94 a barrel.

Markets are almost already fully pricing in a 25 basis point rate cut by the Federal Reserve as American currency slided lower again. The US Dollar is facing tremendous pressures as global economies become stronger and the anticipation of a rate cut further drives the benchmark currency lower. The strong Euro is worth almost $1.45 US and the strong Canadian economy is pushing the Canadian Dollar further past parity and is now worth about $1.05 US. Multi-national US firms are reaping the benefits every quarterly earnings report that the US Dollar slides while International Investors in US companies are feeling the pinch as their holdings absorb the conversion rate loses.

While a rate cut is what the market expects, there has to be a balance here and the Fed knows it. Economy stability and Inflation/Currency issues have to be at the forefront of the Fed policy discussions, as I'm sure they will be. The last time the Fed met and cut rates the market on the whole rallied and this party, with few hiccups, has continued into late October. The market expects more now and a stand by the Fed will likely be met by selling so a cautious stance will be taken by traders in the days leading up to an announcement.

Major financials are holding seemingly steady now awaiting the Fed but the solid Investment Banks are seeing Money flow back in. Goldman Sachs (GS) hit a new high today over $244/share, and Lehman Brothers (LEH) advanced also, both stocks showing gains of over 3%.

Oil continued its upward trek hitting near $94 a barrel. An incredible run so far that has seemingly been pushed by fear of conflicts or worldwide production slowdowns every other week. Even with a milder Fall, than historically seen, in most regions, Oil prices continue to remain high pushing the likes of Exxon Mobil (XOM) closer to new highs.

26 October, 2007

Markets End Week on a high, boosted by further Strong Earnings

Microsoft (MSFT) led the markets higher as its quarterly earnings surpassed estimates. The Dow finished up 1% and the Nasdaq almost 2%. Hope in the Financials was somewhat restored today also as Countrywide Financial (CFC) painted a hopeful picture for Mortgage recovery.

CFC, seemingly America's poster child for the credit crisis situation, rose over 30% as the company provided an outlook that signalled recovery. Investors met this with broad buying in many large and tailored financial names. The big banks, including Bank Of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C), after being pressured all week, recovered a few percentage points.

On the heels of the red hot IPO of VMWare (VMW), parent company EMC (EMC) reported a stellar quarter and outlook Thursday. Shares lifted EMC to new highs and Friday sent the stock to a record of close to $25/share. The company was hovering around $18-$19 when a small stake of VMWare went public recently, and subsequently more than doubled.

Investors will wait for the Fed Rate Decision to come in the week ahead but the hope instilled by CFC has to provide some foundation for recovery in the battered sub-prime sector. The start of a recovery for the big banks and trading houses should filter through as well. All eyes will be on the Fed in the trading days to come.

24 October, 2007

Market Musings Oct 24, S&P Changes add NYX, and Facebook news

The Markets came back strong to the close on Wednesday after being down fairly significantly mid-day. News of the struggling Housing sector and brokerage house Merrill Lynch (MER) writing down over $8Billion due to the Credit Crunch rattled investors and traders. A not so earth shattering outlook from high flier Amazon (AMZN) didn't help Technology stocks either.

The economic news on Existing Home Sales hurt stocks at the start as sales fell 8% year over year, which was worse than most economists had expected. Lots of talk about this "not yet being the bottom" led to further fears and thus more selling. Stocks seemed to bottom out however mid-day and recovered to be only flat or slightly lower. Technology was hurt by Amazon's perception of next quarter margins, which had investors heading for the profit taking fence.

NYSE Euronext (NYX) was up again today, hitting a recent high of $92, before settling at $90/share at the close, on news that it is about to be inserted into the S&P 500 and S&P 100 indices. This news was confirmed earlier in the week but today marked the last trading day before the company was to be officially recognized. Shares of NYX have rallied almost 9% since the announcement. The sheer number of money managers and funds that now have to own the company will likely continue to drive the shares higher going into its earnings report in early November. The stock is still off of its $112/share 52-week high but with a strong report and continued buying demand it may be sooner rather than later that the stock breaks into that territory.

Facebook, everybody's new favourite uber-growth social network, made more headlines today with a couple major announcements by big technology companies. Research In Motion (RIMM) announced a new application for its popular BlackBerry devices that ties in with Facebook, further promoting Rim's plans to nip at the heels of the consumer market segment. Microsoft (MSFT) threw its name into the social network hat as it agreed to purchase a 1.6% stake in Facebook for $240Million. The transaction gives Microsoft better leverage against its main Internet advertising competitors; Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO), and values Facebook at a lofty $15Billion.

Disclosure: Author is long NYX, GOOG

22 October, 2007

Apple does far more than just Shine with another Record Blowout Earnings Number

Not to be outdone by its Technology peers in the "Blowout earnings" game, Apple (AAPL) came through with a record breaking September quarter. Going against history Apple also guided higher than Wall Street anticipated for the Christmas quarter. The earnings of $1.01/share and the guidance of $1.42/share for next quarter led the stock to gain 7% after hours.

There are blowout earnings and there are BLOWOUT earnings and Apple's quarter certainly falls into the 2nd of the 2 categories. Apple's earnings of $1.01/share beat the street expectations of $0.85/share and Revenue of $6.22Billion was well ahead of the expected $6.02Billion. The company ends its Fiscal Year this quarter and for FY07 the company did over $24Billion in revenue. This first time in its history having a FY with revenue over $20Billion. Guidance from the company surprised analysts as it was very bullish compared with Apple's historic trends.

Apple's typical conservative guidance due to "less favourable commodity conditions" and "product transitions" really was a sly practice for past quarters but I believe the company knows the Street is onto its game and is now ready to step up to the plate and concede that they are in really good shape, regardless of economic conditions, to capitalize on an excellent product mix and unmatched company momentum.

The Mac line of computers was very strong, making record sales during the quarter, and culminating with 2.16Million units sold. The music player iPod line sold 10.2 Million units and the company added sales of almost 1.2Million iPhones. The Phone/Media revolutionary device was stronger than even very bullish analysts had expected. It was clear that the decision by the company to cut the price of the device by $200 late in the quarter helped to spur furthur additional sales. Apple cited a favourable tax rate, favourable component costs, a weaker US currency and good seasonal trends, as all attributing to the record results.

Even with a warning to analysts that some of these trends will become more normalized the company still guided 3 cents higher than the Street had expected. If Apple sticks to its previous trends of posting a guidance number that it is very confident in making than Investors everywhere should feel almost euphoric as to what an earnings result the company could be in for come January. As Apple's stock has rallied to $174 before the results the company growth metric were expanding almost into overvalued territory. Forward P/E and trailing P/E ratios were both inflating and PEG numbers were getting higher than many technology competitors.

Apple's trailing ratios will come down slightly based on Monday's closing price. At $174 the P/E stood at 49 with trailing earnings of $3.55/share. After the results trailing P/E stands at 44 on $3.94/share in earnings. With the stock up to $187 in after hours trading the P/E climbs back up to 47.5. Investors are clearly bullish about growth in all sectors for Apple. The forward guidance for the January quarter puts trailing earnings at $4.22/share. At current trailing P/E ratios that puts a target price of $198 on shares going into January. It's no surprise that analysts have seemingly stumbled over each other of late increasing their own price targets for Apple stock. While all the bullish sentiment can be enamouring the realist trader must re-think future possibilities. Apple hitting $200 by January of next year represents about a 7% gain, and for a stock that has seen a 20% rise in 1 month and a 90% rise in 6 months, that's actually slowing momentum. Keep in mind I am warning momentum traders not long term investors. The belief in Apple's continued execution has benefited investors tremendously over the last couple of years and with this product mix that is almost assured to continue. As such any profit taking dips should be well welcomed by the ever growing base of Apple believers.

With the continued growth successes in the Mac computer line, iPods fresh and ready for Christmas and the iPhone just coming into its own, the future is still very bright for Apple as a company and as a stock. With these positive results and bullish forecasts there seems to be little resistance in Apple's path to $200 and beyond.

Disclosure: Author is long AAPL

21 October, 2007

Earnings Preview: Week of Oct 22nd

To say the Markets took a breather Friday would be a grave understatement. The selling was balanced, on heavy volume and carried on throughout the day. The major indices; Dow Jones, Nasdaq, and S&P were all lower about 2.5%. Earnings season continues this week and more major companies will have the spotlight on them.

The week kicks off Monday with Computer and iPod/iPhone maker Apple Inc. (AAPL) reporting what is wildly expected to be another blowout earnings number for Technology stocks. Drug makers will also see action this week as Merck (MRK) and Schering-Plough (SGP) report Monday as well with Amgen (AMGN) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) set to follow later in the week.

AT&T (T) looks to capitalize on the popular iPhone as it highlights a busy Tuesday and software giant Microsoft (MSFT) headlines another busy earnings Thursday. Aerospace will feature also Lockheed Martin (LMT) reports as does Boeing (BA)

Investors and Traders will be looking for earnings to set a positive direction in order to drive further gains well into the Fall. Friday's pause was seen as healthy profit taking with a very cautious undertone. If the general earnings trend continues to be above-expectations than the market should have little resistance upwards, possibly no matter what the Fed does at its next Interest Rate decision.

18 October, 2007

Major Tech Earnings Start Q3 with a Bang Part 3: Google Growth Continues

All eyes were on Google (GOOG) Thursday as Investors had digested a couple days of very positive Technology earnings and some not so positive Financial earnings. Momentum Traders hoping to continue the Tech ride further into the Fall pinned their hopes on favourable numbers from everyone's favourite Internet Giant, Google.

In terms of raw numbers it was an all around exceptional quarter from the Internet Advertising behemoth. Revenue climbed 57% year over year to $4.2Billion, which also represented a 9% quarter over quarter increase. Profit numbers, without stock option expenses, were $3.91/share, beating analyst expectations of $3.78. Google continues to dumbfound analysts when it comes to growth prospects and projections.

All the rage last quarter surrounded a drop in margins from 35% to 29% due to over hiring. Management was adament that hiring would be more disciplined and they re-iterated that same fact during this conference call. Google infact added even more employees this quarter than last. However, these additions were due to pre-signed contracts with University Graduates and 300 employees from the acquisition of Postini. Management seemed to relieve analysts during the call with specifics about hiring and their diligence about keeping an extra eye on hiring practices. Margins improved to 31%, becoming more normalized, however this number is still below year ago levels. This I believe, can be attributed to a tax rate rise from 25% to over 27% this quarter. Google typically projects a tax rate of near 30% and the assumption is that the company wil be paying more with an increased rate in the following quarter. A cause for concern perhaps, but at these growth levels, expected tax levels shouldn't be a real problem.

Google's cash horde is ever increasing and analysts began to question the company on potential uses of that cash. In response management seemed very disciplined in their approach to spending the money on only causes that make seemingly perfect sense strategically. This is clearly a company with a vision of the future, not ready to throw money around to get into businesses that don't fit. I believe this is one of Google's greatest core competencies! The minds at Google have a plan, a broad plan, and things that fit this plan get bought or invested in. They don't go after fliers, buy on whims, or buy things on hype.

Cases in point:
YouTube -> a clear direction in online video and its expansive possibilities into video and TV advertising
DoubleClick -> a clear direction for display advertising and advertising campaign management
Writely -> Online word processing technology to create an online Office suite
Postini -> Strengtening security in Email for Google Apps to break into Enterprise markets heavily
GrandCentral -> Telephone consolidation with online management, another pool for Apps or AdWords campaigns

Capital Expenditures at Google are always a concern for Investors as Google seems to wave its nose at the concept of Cost Cutting/Slowing. It's building a vast network of computing architecture and no one will tell the company differently. Where this comes into effect in the Finances is when the depreciation and replacement of all that computing equipment starts to kick in. The upside though, is that Google's technology is far and wide beyond its competitors and they can't catch up if Google keeps spending more, and more effectively, on development and technology.

Google's AdSense partners are getting less and less of a percentage of revenues. Last year at this time, the amount Google paid out to its partners was 31% of revenues, this year 29%. This percentage has been dropping steadily since Google became a public company. This means that an increasing percentage of revenue is coming from Google's own properties, meaning that all of the advertising dollars are going to Google's bottom line and not its partner sites (Of which this blog is one).

Google is growing still, has its mind set on strategic advancements and search improvements, is leaving its competitors in its Search dust (60% of searches at last count), and is continuing to make money hand over fist. What's next for the company? TV ads?, The Mobile Space?, GPhone? Only management knows and only future quarters will tell. So this isn't a boat to jump off of just yet.

Disclosure: Author is long GOOG

16 October, 2007

Major Tech Earnings Start Q3 with a bang Part 2: Yahoo Shines

Another bell weather in its Technology Sector, Yahoo (YHOO) had modest expectations after quarters of struggles and declining growth. Today's earnings were a pleasant surprise as Yahoo topped expectations, signalling that it in fact may be turning the corner with its Ad platform and new acquisitions strategy.

Income fell slightly at $151Million, $0.11/share, same as a year ago, but revenue on the other hand for its own web businesses came in above expectations at $1.28Billion. Analysts had expected $1.24Billion on the top line number and $0.08/share in profit. Yahoo's guidance for the 4th quarter was within the range expected by analysts and that led to relief, leading shares up in after hours trading.

Although Yahoo is losing search share to Google (GOOG) it is not going down without a fight, in fact Yahoo is actively securing exclusive Internet Ad deals, and highlighted a few new ones at the end of the quarter. The company will now produce ads for WedMD, Forbes.com and Cars.com. A slight coup if you will as WebMD was previously using Google's Ad network. These are the kinds of aggressive moves that will bring Yahoo back into the limelight, as Yahoo notoriously lost out in several high profile bidding wars recently.

New CEO Jerry Yang made it his mandate to do a full review of all business units and he is thus far sticking to his word of trying to turn Yahoo around. This quarter is a start, however Google is still miles ahead of everyone in search. If Jerry and the Yahooligans keep securing more exclusive Ad space and build out their network the fruits of that labor will be seen in quarters and years to come. Yahoo however has to refocus on its core priorities and manage its huge user network. The most visited site on the Internet has to have a clearer plan on how it bring all of its services to all of its users in a cleaner and more efficient manner. This is priority number 1 in order for the company to return to its previously held dominant Web position.

Yahoo's successful quarter signals that Advertising remained healthy even during the credit crisis and housing downturn which is a very good sign for the Major player in the sector Google. In fact Google gained $12 after-hours on Yahoo's news as Investors anticipated even better numbers from the leader in Search Advertising Thursday.

This quarter was a definite sign of relief for Yahoo longs, and as the holiday season approaches its all smiles for the company. If Jerry can continue to tighten operations and secure further Ad deals he'll have a high flier on his hands in the year or 2 to come, but the engineers at Yahoo need to continue to innovate and not let the likes of Google and Facebook keep stealing users away. The results here are promising but Yahoo's valuations are still much higher than Google's on a forward basis and only continuing accelerations in profit growth will keep the company on this perch.

Disclosure: Author is long GOOG

Major Tech Earnings Start Q3 with a Bang Part 1: Intel Beat Estimates, Ups Guidance

The major player in its business segment, Intel (INTC) was looked upon to set a direction for Technology early in this earnings season. And set a direction it did as the companies beat expectations and had its shares move higher in after hours trading. Intel came down the pipeline first, and the computer chip maker left nothing to chance this quarter as sales continued to be strong and CEO Paul Otellini projected further strength ahead.

All things that a market cheers! Intel was able to put a number together this quarter that led it do double digit sales growth for the first time in years. First the numbers.
Income was up to $1.8Billion or $0.31/share vs. a year ago $1.3Billion or $0.22/share (an increase of 40%)
Revenue was up to $10.1Billion, which represented an increase of 15% year-over year.

That all important margin issue, that had plagued Intel for much of the past 12-16 months seems to be forgotten as the company has stepped completely ahead of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and into its formerly held dominant market position. Due to heavy price wars with AMD, Intel's margins were dropping quarter after quarter, and with that the stock price went stagnant. However in the past 2 quarters this story changed and Intel proved once again that it has market power when it comes to selling processors. Gross margins at the company rose slightly again and the expectation for the 4th quarter is that Intel will be able to nudge them even higher still above 55%.

Analyst estimates had called for more conservative margin numbers leading to $0.30/share and $9.6Billion. Intel handily beat those figures as demand for the company's products were heavy due to increasing laptop use. The very successful Core 2 Duo line proved a winner again as Computer makers like Hewlett Packard (HPQ) and Apple (AAPL) are stuffing the chips in their systems left and right. A quick look over at Amazon's best selling computers list has 4 Apple machines in the top 5 all sporting Intel's Core 2 Duo chip sets. Hewlett Packard holds 6 of the next 10 spots with 4 Intel powered systems and 2 AMD powered systems.

In all, of the top 15 true laptops on Amazon's list, 12 run on Intel chip sets. Now that's dominance in a sector that is growing much faster than traditional computer desktop systems. The company guided even higher than previously for the 4th quarter, now expecting sales between $10.5Billion and $11Billion; analysts were expecting $10.4Billion.

With the way the computer industry is growing, especially in the laptop sector and emerging markets, it's the hardware that will continue to sell and sell well. While all the fuss has been on piracy when it comes to Software, the makers of the nuts and bolts, so to speak, will continue to be strong. While in the Far East piracy runs rampant as the computer market continues to expand the difficulty involved in illegally copying chip design and computer design innovations is paramount to the tasks involved in copying software. Bottom line is, Intel dominates its marketplace, it is the brains behind the most popular systems being sold today and we are coming to an era of innovation in Computers where customers are becoming excited again about what their systems look like and what they can do. This shines a particularly bright light for the rest of the year and beyond for that company, that more times than not, is truly Inside.

Disclosure: Author is long AAPL, INTC

14 October, 2007

Earnings Week Preview Oct 15 - Oct 19

Busy crop of earnings lie ahead as Major Technology firms and the Financials are set to report quarterly numbers. Citigroup (C) is up first on Monday followed by Bank Of America (BAC) Thursday. The Internet giants lead Technology into the full earnings swing as Yahoo (YHOO), eBay (EBAY) and Google (GOOG) all report on consecutive days.

The Biggest mobile phone maker Nokia (NOK) will have investor eyes squarely on it Thursday and big Bio Techs Pfizer (PFE) and Genentech (DNA) also square off this week. The extended rally since the Fed rate cute has pushed investor confidence higher but it has also made for some weary trading as even slight earnings upside may not be enough to push stocks much higher past record levels.

As Technology has led the rally of late, all eyes seem to be on those uber-growth firms, and whether they can maintain their lofty valuations by trumping street expectations for yet another quarter.

11 October, 2007

Markets Experience Sharp Selloff after hitting New Highs

Thursday began as another bullish day in the extended rally for the North American markets as the Dow Jones set record highs on sales guidance from mega-retailer WalMart (WMT). Technology also got off to a good start as earnings estimates and price targets were getting bumped higher virtually across the board.

Apple (AAPL) received two price target bumps this morning from analysts at Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs pushing shares to an all time high above $170. Similar highs were seen in momentum favourites Research In Motion (RIMM), Google (GOOG), Baidu (BIDU) and VMWare (VMW).

Just before 2pm in this afternoon's trading the markets were up over half a percentage point. It appears whispers travelled and the buyers dam broke and flooded into a massive sell-off. Within minutes the Nasdaq was in the red and major technology stocks saw their new highs evaporating. Cautious comments from JP Morgan regarding Chinese Internet portal Baidu's revenue for the upcoming quarter sparked slight profit taking which seemed to snowball throughout the technology sector. Further adding to the panic were comments made in Europe by European Central Bank Council member Axel Weber who insinuated that 1) the ECB may need to raise rates in order to keep inflation in check, and 2) that inflation should be priority number 1, not economic stability.

There was concern with the Federal Reserve's half point rate cut that the action signified a more worrisome approach to economic stability, rather than inflation. These comments out of Europe show that the ECB seems to be standing firmer towards the side of inflation concerns.

These comments seemed to rekindle trader fears of Inflation and pushed the selling further. A rally that was built around the Fed cutting rates by half a percentage point will certainly not hold up well if there's talk of a potential rate hike being needed to curb inflation. The sectors that have been gaining the most during the rally were the ones hit the hardest; Technology and Energy.

Investors should take heed that the indices were brought back after the drop, meaning that the Dow was able to hold and close above 14,000. If inflationary comments come further to light this could add tremendous volatility for the markets ahead, but investors should be concerned with specific company fundamentals, especially as the earnings season gets into high gear.

Disclosure: Author is long AAPL, GOOG

08 October, 2007

Markets Lull Ahead of Earnings but Tech Continues to Sizzle

An overall negative market day in North America was propped by continued strength in Technology stocks. The Dow Jones and S&P were both lower but the Nasdaq managed to eek out a quarter percent gain. Volume levels were lower across the board as earnings from major companies are seemingly around the corner.

Technology was at the forefront all day as many new all time highs were not only reached but breached once again. Google (GOOG) most notably passed the $600 mark closing at $609.62.
Apple (AAPL) and Research In Motion (RIMM) continued to show strength with gains of 4% and 3.7% respectively. Previously beaten down names like Akamai (AKAM), up 8.4%, and Garmin (GRMN), up 4.5%, made rebounding strides today.

The winter season has so far been mild, which has put a dent in oil prices, dragging down Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Co. Gas Prices however, have sustained at high levels and that re-ignites investor fears that consumers will take their holiday spending down a notch. It'll be a battle between the bulls and the bears over the next few weeks as the markets seeks a true direction throughout the winter months. So far the Bulls are proving they have the edge, especially in Technology.

Disclosure: Author is long AAPL, GOOG, AKAM

05 October, 2007

Jobs Report puts Market in a Bullish Mood

The US Labor situation got a much needed boost last month as payrolls in September increased by 110,000. The Market feared dipping into a recession as the August report showed a decrease of 4000 jobs. This number was actually revised upwards to show a gain of 89,000 jobs. These macro-metrics put the markets in bullish territory early and the indices never looked back.

The Nasdaq led the way with a 1.7% gain and the Dow, S&P and Canadian TSX were all up between .7 and 1%. Canadian Technology power and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIMM) led the way on the Canadian side as the company's strong earnings and guidance going forward lifted shares over 12%. The optimism surrounding the company and its popular line of electronics helped prop tech stocks for the entire trading session.

Investors go into the weekend on a high and as the Americans are back at it on Monday their Canadian counterparts get the day off to Celebrate the Thanksgiving Holiday.

04 October, 2007

WC Investing Q&A: Session I

Well its time to introduce something new to the WC Investment Blog. The best way to offer feedback I think is through Q&A Sessions. So here we are with the first one, of hopefully many more.

I've been fortunate enough to have generated a level of interest in my Investment Writings and because of this I've been asked a variety of questions on an amalgam of stock topics. So I thought instead of burying some of my responses in commentary and outside sources I would bring them to the forefront here, officially. Just so there's no confusion, this isn't a lightning round by any stretch, (I'm pretty sure Jim Cramer's got that trademarked) but I will try to keep responses relatively brief.

So let's get started.

1) Talked before about Diageo (DEO) as an Alcohol play, is there anything riskier and more obscure out there?

One company is Central European Distribution (CEDC) and what they do is distribution of, you guessed it, alcohol into and throughout Central Europe. They also produce and sell vodka throughout Poland and distribute an overwhelming number of other brands through the region. One year chart looks beautiful here and I first mentioned this play when shares ran from $18 to $39. I thought then part of the boat had sailed but the company is still worth a look. Forward P/E of 19-low-20s and a Price to Earnings Growth ratio estimate at about 1.40-1.5. If speculative plays in the alcohol space is the name of the game this is one of the only games in town.

2) Akamai and its upcoming Competition?

Akamai's (AKAM) a solid tech company. I like it and own Call options in it. It got really crushed when it reported its previous quarter numbers and now its earnings season again for this company. While it's had a pullback, I think AKAM remains stronger positions than its competitors in the Internet back-end bandwidth game. Major League Baseball is seeing a resurgence of traffic now as the playoff races finished up and the post season has begun and AKAM's sure to benefit. Limelight Networks (LLNW) seemed to be up and coming but it faltered heavily over the late summer months. There are concerns over margin contraction due to competition , but I still think AKAM it is the best company in this space.

3) VMWare IPO and beyond?

I talked about my thoughts on VMWare (VMW) and its IPO here (Link). I was weary of overpaying if VMWare jumped to $60 on its first day. I thought EMC (EMC) was the better play since they still hold 89% of VMWare all to themselves. VMWare has got it going though and as it breaks $90 and heads for $100 its even scarier. But the business that its in will be a big one in corporate circles and it is the only game in town right now when it comes to virtualization. On any pullbacks I would like to own it, but till then EMC still gives you great VMWare exposure with less risk.

4) How does Ebay go about increasing listings? And How is Ebay affected by Macroeconomics

Ebay's (EBAY) most important business is the core auctions business. They are seemingly the only one and as such have major control over pricing. Ebay was losing its core business to its own stores/Amazon's personal stores and other such merchants online. This was due to Ebay increasing prices too much. This drove down listings. When Ebay earlier this year reshuffled their pricing schemes it seems to regulate the business back and hence led to an increase in listings. So that's one way, a second is advertising. Ebay does a lot of it, but to further increase listings they need to do more. Ebay ran a pretty successful I think "It" campaign through TV and print ads but I havn't seen anything like that in quite a while from the company. Third, Ebay needs to further expand into more worldwide markets. They've made some strides in Europe but there's still a lot of room for growth there. The East markets are tougher for American companies to crack since they have traditionally had a hard time understanding the consumer and cooperating with regulations.

As for Ebay's macroeconomic issues, it like all technology stocks is susceptible to factors like inflation, interest rates, employment, consumer confidence etc. Interest rates, while not seemingly a factor in terms of core business for Ebay do have a big effect on general market trends. When the Fed cut rates earlier the market rallied in relief that the sub prime crisis could be further averted. Had rates not been cut Ebay would've tanked hard with the rest of the market. The employment issue is also a broad market issue, but Ebay feels the effects. Sellers of merchandise on Ebay will have a hard time getting rid of their things if the people who were just buying have suddenly lost jobs. The same goes for consumer confidence. People will only feel free to use their loose cash if they feel their economic situation warrants it. Hence they need to feel confident that they have enough to get by regardless of some casual spending.
The biggest issue for Ebay and other highly valued technology companies is that macroeconomic factors have a direct correlation to P/E ratios. When the economy is strong and macro-economic data points to growth and continued strength the leaders in the markets enjoy P/E premiums, so a company like Ebay can be valued fairly at 40-50 times trailing earnings. When these macro-economic indicators start to shift negatively and fears of a recession in the economy loom its very easy for those P/E premiums to contract sharply, and even though Ebay's growth could be consistent the company would trade at 25-30 times earnings rather than 40-50 times.

5) Altria and the Philip Morris International spin-off, what to do now?

I've liked Altria (MO) in the past and its done well. I liked it going into the run up to the Kraft split and now also before the PMI announcement was finalized.
I think PMI is much better to own as a pure smoking play that actually has some growth.
Smoking in North America is all but dead in the growth department. That's the main reason why I'd be hesitant with Altria. I do think owning it is a good idea for the PMI spin. I think people will jump into that when it becomes fully PMI. Only way to do that initially will be to own MO. I can see MO coming into the $75-77 range at the end of the year from its current $69 range.

6) Fund Holding Performance through the last quarter?

I'm working on something that should be up very soon.
I intend to publish the fund's largest holding, gainers, losers and trades that were closed during the September quarter.

03 October, 2007

Casino Stocks Fall Sharply on Macau Revenue Growth, Investors shouldn't be quick to jump ship

The Major Casino players have been on quite a run during the late summer months, seemingly hitting new highs daily. The front runners have been Las Vegas Sands (LVS), Wynn Resorts (WYNN) and MGM-Mirage (MGM) and the almost meteoric rise was substantially due to the expectations of growth in the sector in Far East regions like Macau.

Today's news has given major Casino players quite the haircut. LVS and WYNN, which are two of the biggest players in Macau were most hurt by the news that year over year Revenue growth for gambling in the region would be only 55%. Only 55%? That's it, ballgame over. Not so fast, but as with all things growth, and you better believe it Casinos are now growth oriented businesses, comes the gift and the curse that is expectations. The Morgan Stanley analyst who reported views of a softer than expected growth rate was expecting growth to top 75% year over year in the region. When you're talking about huge growth, and "miss" will lead to deflation and some investor panic.

Sometime though, growth numbers get thrown around in bunches ever so higher and it takes a session of humility to bring those valuations in check. I think we got that today and Macau, even at more realistic growth projections is still the real deal as the biggest gambling spot on the planet. So as LVS and WYNN drop 12% and 10% respectively, its time to appreciate the opportunity that has finally been given to own these companies. The casino operators will be a sustainable and substantial business going forward and as a long term investor owning a Casino has got to be right up there with owning a Stock Exchange, an Alcohol company, Food & Beverage, Diapers, Soap and Taxes (If you could invest in a piece of a good government!).

The last time I had to chance to speak about Casino stocks was almost 2 months ago ("Gambling on Gambling") and of the 5 companies I mentioned I thought MGM, LVS and WYNN were the only ways to consider playing, leaving Trump (TRMP) and Harrah's (HET) by the way side. My recommendation on a valuation and forward basis at that time was MGM simply because it was very well positioned in its growth prospects and had not received an outlandish P/E ratio that would bring about higher downside risks. When I wrote the article I said that LVS had been the Tortoise, WYNN was the Hare and MGM might just end up being the Lion.

Since the article here's how things have fared.
LVS: +52%
WYNN: +48%
MGM: +29%
HET: +3%
TRMP: -6%

Its clear that the Casino stocks have done very well of late, and I'd love to toot the horn but I missed the party too. I wrote about the stocks but didn't own a single one and while MGM has seen LVS and WYNN breeze past it in terms of gains I'm sticking with MGM as my Lion. The 10%+ haircuts to WYNN and LVS make them more attractive going forward but LVS has a P/E of 135 and forward P/E of 30, while MGM sits at P/E ratios of 30 after its 3% drop today. To me LVS has a lot more to sustain in order to continue rising and any hint of a slow down in growth, like today, will be met with much bigger waves by the market.
Then again sometimes you just gotta hit 16.

Disclosure: Author holds no position in any companies mentioned above at the time of writing

02 October, 2007

Yahoo's New Search Tool shows how far ahead Google is

Google (GOOG), the dominant player in search and search advertising, is seeing its competitors constantly nipping at its heels and it seemingly ignores them and continues to innovate. While Yahoo (YHOO), Microsoft (MSFT), and Interactive's Ask (IACI) are trying to revamp, recreate and reinvigorate the search experience in the hopes of gaining market share and hence more advertisers, Google is padding its lead and running away with first rate technology innovations.

Ask.com has some neat complete search functions and combines results of all types of media and even includes little previews, but it is still a minor player in the search game. Microsoft's failed MSN unit is still around and kicking and losing ever more money, while the revamped Live platform has yet to gain any traction and Microsoft is continually seeing search share losses. Microsoft even tried to lure searchers by offering them points in exchange for prizes when they did searches and even included games inside MSN Messenger that forced users to search for answers to questions. Sorry Softie, but that's not gonna win over the advertisers and not gonna get people to give up on Google altogether.

Yahoo's newest feature, billed as a Search "Innovation", while positive for the languishing company, signals just how far behind the company is on the technology spectrum. Yahoo was once the poster child for the future of the Internet and these days it seemingly can't catch a break as revenue growth is slowing, share prices are slipping and it loses portions of market share to Google every quarter. The new feature for Yahoo is "Search-Assist", which is a Search Suggestion/Completion tool that slides out when users type in a search keyword. As a user starts typing into the search box a list of common or relevant search terms comes up. Pretty cool huh! It is beneficial but looking behind the scenes I think tells a different story. Let's step back and see just what this says about Yahoo's tactics.

I think it showcases a desperation on Yahoo's part that it simply doesn't have the back end grunt to truly become a personalized search power house. A Power House that Google is slowing but surely building as it releases tools such as Web History, iGoogle and Personalized Search. All those quarters of increasing Capital Expenditures that analysts were frightened about are proving well worth their weight in gold as Google is able to completely change the search game again and again while its competitors struggle to keep up. Yahoo's search box suggestions come off as simply common or popular search terms, while all well and good, that's actually a step sideways and not forwards in the technological sense.

As the Internet expands and the plethora of information becomes exceedingly complex only YOU can determine exactly what YOU'RE looking for, not everybody else. Google's got you covered. A recent post on Google's official blog states (Link) that Yes its concerned about the huge privacy issues and its doing all it can but it also is working tremendously to tailor the Internet to each user.

"search algorithms that are designed to take your personal preferences into account, including the things you search for and the sites you visit, have better odds of delivering useful results for you. So if you’ve been checking out sites about the Louvre and you search for 'Paris', you’re more likely to get results about the French capital than the celebrity heiress" Additionally Google goes on to showcase that a search for Football in Chicago is completely different than a search for Football in London, England.

Google is taking localized and personalized search into realms that its competitors can only dream of getting to. This is all due to that massive technology spending to build out an infrastructure of computing that can handle incredible complexity when it comes to something that should be as simple as search. That is why Google gets a majority of search traffic, has higher click-through rates for its tailored advertisements, continues to grow rapidly and demands a market premium via a lofty valuation.

Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask right now are simply out of their league when it comes to search innovations. Google has the brains, with its thousands of dedicated creative employees, it has the brawn, with its incredible breadth of technology infrastructure, and it has bank roll to keep innovating in ever expanding new areas of not only Search Technology but all aspects of our daily Internet lives.

Disclosure: Author is long GOOG

01 October, 2007

Markets start October with a Bang as Dow hits All Time High

The rally continues in the wake of the Fed Rate Cut last month and stocks extended gains as the calendar changed from September to October. The Dow hit an all time intra-day high of 14,115 points as the index gained over 190 points. The Nasdaq followed suit with an almost 40 point gain and the S&P held up a 20 point gain. Canadian markets ended with about half the gains of its US counterparts as investors bought stocks across the board bidding the TSX up 100 points. The advance was broad and spanned every sector. Volume was also much heavier than the week prior as investors on the sidelines during the end of the quarter jumped back into the markets to fuel the rally.

Citigroup (C) drifted off its highs late but was up over 3% in the afternoon as it provided an optimistic outlook for the remainder of the year. The financial heavyweight announced that profit fell 60% due to loses in credit and mortgage securities totalled almost $6Billion. Guess the big bank guys weren't as smart of those Goldman Sachs (GS) traders who shorted such monstrous amounts of mortgage investments to cover up and make up hefty losses. Nonetheless investors were pleased as Citigroup told the markets they expect a calendar 4th quarter that would return things to the norm. Goldman gained another 3% to close at $223.

Nokia (NOK) also made headlines, and started the day well down, as it announced the purchase of Navteq (NVT), the navigation software company, for over $8Billion. Nokia shook off the early heavy drop before the market opened and managed to close the day in the green and even hit a 52-week high above $38/share. Nokia hopes to leverage Navteq's expertise in maps and navigation into its future lineup of mobile phones. The loser here apparently was Garmin (GRMN) as its shares fell 10% on investor speculation that it lost the bid for Navteq's service and now faces stiffer competition from Nokia.

New highs were aplenty in Tech stocks as Ebay (EBAY), Apple (AAPL), IBM (IBM), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Google (GOOG) all hit new marks, while Research In Motion (RIMM) and Amazon (AMZN) came oh so close. Google continued its sharp rise adding $15 and crossing the $580/share price mark for the first time in its young public history. As major techs get set to report earnings in the coming weeks it'll be increasing difficult to judge which of those companies are too inflated for their own growth prospects. But now, while the rally is in full swing, investors are coming back into play and buying Technology ahead of earnings and the seasonally strong holiday quarter.

Disclosure: Author is long AAPL, GOOG, GS, C