Investment Common Sense

News & Views   

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December 6, 2018 My Bad

I rolled my November portfolio in late November and, using my admittedly crude evaluation system, I lost about 6% for the year. Here's how I did it: In February when the market made its first big break, I liquidated about 1/2 the portfolio in this account. I sold mostly stocks with a profit. That means I'll pay ordinary income tax on the gains. I kept the proceeds of the sales in cash until just now. I let the rest of the portfolio ride the rough waters of the market until now.

Except for selling half - that probably kepy my loss from being 12% - I stuck to the O'Shaughnessy system for this portfolio. I have now re-invested about 85% of the money in this account in the last week or so. I used limit orders for about 1/2 of the re-investment, and most of these orders have been filled in the last two days. Therefore, it's now OK with me if the market starts going up again. I'll publish a new watch list tomorrow.

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November 10, 2018 Another candidate for Fairy Tale of the year

I notice Mallinckrodt (MNK) is at the top of the Weekly List this week. You probably remember I am very suspicious about Intangible assets, and MNK's intangibles are 82% of their assets. I'm no expert on the pharma manufacturing industry, and maybe 82% intangible assets is acceptable. But MNK's sudden ascendency to momentum leader combined with very high intangibles prompted me to read their financials (latest published 12/29/2017) from their web site.

Their financials - that apparently conform to Irish accounting standards - are difficult for me to understand, but I particularly did not understand the long winded explanation of the change of fiscal year - nor do I want to. it just made my head hurt. Then items like negative $102 million of "Significant legal and enviromnental charges" that add to profit further baffles me. How do they have negative legal charges? Did their attorneys give them a refund? That hardly seems likely in my experience, and what exactly are environmental charges? If you would like some difficult reading, I recommend their most recent financial statements.

Taking a look at my Supplement page shows rather high increase in accurals and a very low Altman Z Score.

It does not take too long to find some negative information about the company on the web. I wonder what is driving the sudden Wall Street interest in this stock. Looks to me like a serious AVOID. Remember, I just provide carefully calculated numbers. You have to make your own decisions.

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August 2, 2018 I should have seen it coming


Triple S Management (GTS), is a self described "Managed Care" company based in Puerto Rico, and recent darling of the stock market ranking near the top of my Weekly Table. My most recent Supplement provides a clue that trouble might be lurking. Their most recent momentum was sharply down, but most compelling was that their Altman Z Score was right on the borderline and the Beneish M Score was missing.

I thought it was too good to be true when I bought it anyhow. Now I have a bit over $4,000 of regret. I guess I should have paid more attention to the small note that they also are a property and casualty insurer in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Their explanation, "approximately $76.4 million of unfavorable prior period reserve development". I think what that means is management should be fired for not finding out what their exposure was, adequately reinsuring it, and then putting some boots on the ground to mitigate the losses. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

June 9, 2018 Lots of changes and one observation

I am continuing to make what I hope are improvements to this web site. I moved the column explanations to the Information Page and plan to remove them from all the other pages to save space and make more room for scrolling tables with (semi) fixed headers on the information pages.

My one observation is this: I notice "Century Link" on the last few weeks Weekly Table. Living as I do in one of Century Link's former home towns when it was Qwest and before that US West and before that Northwestern Bell. This is not an accurate history since, supposedly those former companies became part of Century Link through M&A

But, one thing I know for sure from experience is that their service sucks. It has sucked for at least the last 20 years and still sucked the last time I had anything to do with it in 2016 when I waited over an hour for customer service to help a non-profit where I volunteer as the IT manager. Because they constantly advertise "gigibit" internet at a very cheap rate, I call them about every three months to verify that "that service is not available in my area". I would be damn surprised if it's available in any area.

What does this have to do with investing you ask? A company that lies about their service will also lie about their financial statements. Take a look at the Supplement page and notice the Altman Z score is way below the cutoff and on the Weekly Table their delta debt is way over their Shareholder Yield. Their free cash flow is a measily 4.37% and the five year growth of free cash flow is -75.46%. My recollection is that a former CEO of Qwest, Joe Nacchio, was convicted for creative accounting. What do accounting records smell like when they are cooked?

Make that two observations. I notice that SeaDrill was unable to convince their bankers to do that BS deal I mentioned last year and now trades around $3.40 down from $30+ following Chapter 11 proceedings. I'm glad I sold. But there are mitigating factors, the old management got a lot more control, but they had to put up a lot of money to do it. Prospects still do not look too good with oil prices bouncing around and electric cars getting more popular. Anyhow I bought some for the 11% yield with some of my gambling money. They are on this week's Top Ten list primarily because of their highly valued assets. Expensive drill ships are really not worth much if you cannot get somebody to rent them. It's not like they are a good place to take a vacation.

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May 12, 2018 It's been too long since I made any comments

My last comment was in February, and since then the market has performed better than I thought. Today, my January 2019 SPY $260 Puts are down 36%, the rest of my portfolio - including a lot of cash - is up 0.6%. So, the puts are working the way they are supposed to (I'm even for the year), but since options lose "leverage" the closer they get to exercise date, I have to start thinking about maybe closing they out.

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February 5, 2018

Lots to report today. Altho 6 days short of one year, I "rolled over" my February portfolio today. I did not exactly folow O'shaughnessy's formula because I sold everything in the portfolio regardless of whether or not it is on this week's buy list. I also did not wait for the full year to pass because the market seems headed into the dumper and I have always tried to apply the lesson from the old saying, better to fart and bear the shame than not to fart and bear the pain

This wise saying can be paraphrased for investing as follows: Better to sell early and pay the tax than not to sell and lose the profit.

Not only did I sell my Frbruary portfolio, I sold most of my other stock too, and bought some SPY $260 Jan 2019 puts. I learned about the puts from my favorite investing guru, Travis Johnson who writes the Stock Gumshoe newsletter and blog - absolutely the best investing value you can get for $49/year provided you read it consistently including the comments from his subscribers.

Please understand, I still love the stock market, but my investment objectives and perspective may be very different than yours. I am 79 years old and have plenty of money to sustain a comfortable life style for me and my wife. If our retirement savings decrease it is going to be because we spend it, not because I lost it in the stock market. My time horizon is pretty short; maybe ten to fifteen more good years. I probably have enough money to last that long even without any income, but I do not have time or income to make up any large losses.

On the other hand I like to invest so that we can continue or improve our life style - I still dream about that red and silver Cessna Citation - and if somebody discovers a miracle elixir so we can enjoy good health till we are 150, we will need more money, maybe even leave some for the kids.

If not losing money in the stock market means I have to cash out from time to time to feel comfortable, that's OK with me. Wasn't it Ben Franklin who said, a man has three true friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready cash?

I have no obligation to any clients or investment advisors so if I feel like putting all my money in 2% CDs that's nobody's business but mine. Besides, it only costs me a maximum of about a thou to cash out and buy back in with my discount broker (Schwab).

Because I feel no urgency to replace my investments with new ones, I can stay out of the market as long as it suits me. I do not expect to sell at the top - otherwise I'd be crying that I should have sold last Monday instead of yesterday. I also don't expect to buy back in at the bottom. Maybe there will not be a "correction" now and the last few days are just a hiccup, but I will not be sorry. I locked up some nice profits, and there's always some bargains lurking out there in the market.

So, for now, I am going to be a spectator. I bet a little on the bear side with puts. The most I can lose is what I paid (about $24k), but a 20% decline in the S&P 500 between now and next January should net me around $60k. I think that's a good bet.

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January 18, 2018

Ain't life wonderful! 55 new highs in my Watch List today and only one stock showing declines over 15% from the highs since I bought them. I guess the world has really changed and the stock market will continue to go up forever. President Trump has figured out the answer to everything and PE ratios of 40 are the new normal.

I am going to celebrate by tightening up on my watch list percentage to watch at 10% and sell at 15% decline. I may also start watching it two days a week instead of just one.

In my 50 + years of investing, when it seems that the world of investing has really changed because of this or that fundimental factor, I don't believe it.

To follow up the previous paragraph, I just sold PDL Biopharma (PDLI) even tho it is on this weeks buy list. It just makes me nervious with over 40% intangible assets and volatility.

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January 6, 2018

I have been concerned about presenting Beneish M Scores in my tables and my explanation about how it should be applied to detect the probability that a particular company is manipulating their earnings. My main concern was that I really did not understand the calculation and the meaning of the resulting "score". My second concern was that my explanation of how to apply the "score" could be wrong.

After carefully reading Beneish's paper, the Wikipedia explanation of it and other articles on the subject, I am sure my previous explanation of how to apply it is wrong, and I have corrected it.

I now believe that the purpose of the Beneish M Score is to rate the probability of earnings manipulation on a scale whose upper and lower limits I don't know, but where most "scores" range between 0 (zero) and -4 (minus four). The reason I say I believe is because this is my simplistic explanation. I have a degree in Industrial Engineering that included a fair amount of statistical math, but that was a long time ago, and while I understood the basic concept I kinda skimmed the paper and I have to think that the widespread acceptance of his method is pretty good authority. He also states that he did not study financial institutions and therefore this test should not be used with insurance companies and banks, etc.

That said, Beneish states the scores should be used to "minimize the expected costs of misclassification" where misclassification is defined as either classifying a manipulator as clean or a non-manipulator as dirty (my definition). He estimates that the loss to an investor of investing in a company that is an "earnings manipulator" can be from 30 to 40 times as high as not investing in that company. This is because there are plenty other investment opportunities if you just don't buy the bad apple - nothing against Apple you understand.

Therefore, you should only invest in companies that have a Beneish M score less than some "cutoff" value. That "cutoff" value appears to be somewhere around -1.82 (minus 1.82). This is not that hard to understand as long as you remember that -1.6 is greater than -1.82.

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October 25, 2017, 2017

I just cashed out my November portfolio. This is my report on how I did. First tho, a couple of caviats:

  • I have a couple of speculative positions in this portfolio that I did not cash out yet
  • I did not reduce my investment in stocks that are still on the Weekly List.
  • I will reinvest the proceeds of the sales in about 20 issues that are on this week's Weekly List

    The results were pretty good. I followed the O'Shaughnessy method with one exception. I sold stocks when my "Watch List" showed a decline of more than 20%. My watch list is a "trailing stop list that I run once a week or so.

    Using my crude evaluation where I calculate the value of the account at the end of the period (one year) and add back any withdrawals ($30,000 this year), I made 33.5%. For the same period, the S&P 500 total return was 17.4%. You win some and you lose some - this time I win.

    Note: One of my speculations is some April 2018 $19 calls on ZTO where I have a 44% profit. However, the profit was double that early last week and GOK where it will be tomorrow, and it's a very small bet that I can afford to lose.

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    October 25, 2017, 2017

    Our German correspondent in China, Martin Zerfass recently responded to my request for his opinion RE ZTO Express - supposedly China's leading express delivery service. Here is his response:

    here is my take on it . as a summary: I would not invest in ZTO . some thoughts on market and the company below

    Honestly speaking though I don't know much about them. They are one of the larger logistics companies here in China. They compete with all the global players (UPS, Fedex, DHL) on the parcel delivery sector but as a quick research shows, they are of course much more that what I see on the roads in everyday traffic. They are one of the major players domestically. But there are some things you need to know about the Chinese logistics market

    Market info 1. small parcel delivery costs next to nothing 2. the last mile is what local Chinese can do and global companies find hard to compete against 3. the domestic market is booming 4. China wide distribution / logistics in business 5. internationalization or globalization of logistics companies like ZTO is not happening (from what I can see)

    1. Here next day (in some cases: same day) delivery is the standard. Chinese buy everything online from groceries (including fresh food), clothes, furniture etc. And everything is delivered either by a small semi-truck (furniture) or some e-scooter for the last mile. Every shop does it (even KFC and McD deliver!!!). My shopping habits have changed significantly from going for a weekly big shopping basket at a retailer to ordering online and getting it delivered. Delivery is free if you spend above 30 - 50 RMB (5-7 USD) depending on the shop and it includes delivery on Saturday and Sunday so normally our family of 3 gets 3-4 parcels every week - sometimes as little as 6 milk cartons and some cookies.

    2. The last mile to the private home is where the big companies like DHL and UPS fail, especially here in big cities like Shanghai. No parking, very narrow streets in the compounds so you cannot deliver with a big truck. You need to have a huge fleet of these small bus-like people mover (but don't think VW Bully or such, think smaller). Most small packages are delivered by ebike couriers and there are hundreds of companies doing that for next to nothing in cost. I haven't seen ZTO (or UPS, DHL etc.) deliver these small packages to private residences by themselves. They outsource this kind of service.

    3. China's online shopping market is booming (like crazy) so this is where a lot of the growth for logistics companies comes from. Companies like Alibaba and some other online shopping sites have grown huge with this business providing platforms and services. Since these services are mostly free to the customer I would guess that the competition in these, like logistics, is fierce and margins are slim. A little surprising was the ZTO investors presentation where they talk about expanding margins (attached). But you might note when looking through it, they are not talking at all about international expansion. So they are purely domestic in their growth and focus. Which is not a bad thing as the market is huge and growing but going forward 5-10 years I wager even the China market reaches a natural limit.

    4. Funnily enough just last week I had a discussion with our logistics head and he was complaining about the quality of logistics in China (we have 8 production plants in 4 large locations in China and ship to customers all over China). Main problem is the missing coordination of local logistic providers. Most of them focus on attractive city or city-to-city routes. Leaving companies like ZTO to cover the less frequented (and I would think: less profitable) areas. Logistic services like packaging, re-using packages etc. is also very underdeveloped still. On the other hand my colleague was saying that the logistic costs of actually moving goods is fairly cheap. Now on the business side with China GDP growth at 6.7% this segment will be growing in the future. How much ZTO will profit from that beyond increased revenue I have no clue. Maybe they are one of the few who can consolidate the fragmented country wide logistic landscape but I could only guess at that.

    5. Internationally the Chinese players don't play a role yet and will be hard pressed to do so in the near future. The infrastructure set up is complicated and expensive and complementary services and complicated processes etc. are required. This is where the Chinese lack. They are good at doing a certain tasks and due to available and cheap labor they can even do a lot of these task but they don't get into the whole efficiency by process thing yet.

    That is my take on the market . if you want my take on ZTO - listed on the NSYE:

    I am very cautious of investing directly in Chinese companies. They do have their home base / market but normally they run their companies with a different mentality that I am not comfortable with. They don't have that drive to excel at things like processes, they become too large too fast and don't focus enough. They want to play with the big players but continuously fail if they move out of their known (home) market. Now there might be exceptions like Tencent and Alibaba but that remains to be seen, if they can duplicate their success outside China where they will go for future growth. Also, at home these companies enjoy preferential treatment through tax breaks, subsidies and other support by the government (local and country) which they don't have outside China. The latter topic is also one of the reason I stay off Chinese direct investments. Their connections to the government are never transparent but always exist. Even private owned companies are subject to some control by the government and they use them as they need. Most of the time this is consistent with companies goals to grow and earn money but sometimes things happen and suddenly the company is pressured to do things they would otherwise not do. I have seen this happen with multi-billion companies in the automotive and industrial sector here - being forced to invest in a certain location, being forced to not lay-off people when it would have been necessary.

    Finally after all this long winded talk: I would not invest in ZTO long term. Short term with the growth of e-commerce and the domestic market still going strong it might be an interesting speculative position. But just to let you know: I missed chances like Bitcoin . so I definitely am wrong sometimes

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    Sept 27, 2017

    To my readers: Recently while reading my favorite investment news source - Stock Gumshoe - it came to my attention that none of the insurance companies that were recently discussed on that site have appeared in my weekly lists

    My curiosity piqued, I checked the data that I get from YCharts where I find that neither insurance companies nor banks nor any other type of financial business have any data in the EV To EBITDA column.

    That means that since May 15, 2016, after I decided to eliminate any companies with missing data from my YChart downloads, Insurance companies, banks and other financial companies have been excluded from my weekly lists.

    I can understand why this column from YCharts is blank for financial businesses due to the nature of their liabilities and how differently they are valued for Enterprise Value, but excluding them because of the missing data is depriving my readers of some potentially profitable investments.

    For this reason, beginning September 26, I have again modified my formulas and awarded any company with missing EV to EBITDA data 50 points (or average) score for this factor as recommended by James O'Shaughnessy.

    Sorry I didn't catch this problem sooner, but now might be a good time to buy insurance stocks since they have been hammered by worries about hurricane damage.

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    Sept 8, 2017

    Looking back at a couple of previous shares I dumped: Star Gas Partners (SGU - I had the wrong symbol previously), and Seadrill (SDLP). SGU is still hanging on @ around $9/share, but SDLP has fallen to less than $4/share.

    I again notice that most of the top picks on the "Weekly Table" are non-US. Two of the top three have highly suspect Altman Z scores on the Suppliment page and are headquartered in countries (Brazil and China) that are not very well known for oversight and strict adherence to GAAP. Remember do your own research before investing.

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    August 3, 2017,

    I'm starting to watch the "Watch List" closer now. While the DJIA set new records, I have been losing about 1/2 percent per day - mostly in pharmaceuticals and industrials. So, I am nervious. What's happening? Looks like many investors are piling on the DJIA and ignoring or selling everything else. However, when I ran my watch list today, I have 41 new highs, a couple of new entries between 15 and 20% and only one (ARCA Biopharma) over the 20% magic sell number.

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    July 15, 2017

    This week I scanned the relatively new and misspelled Supplement page to see if I could find something interesting to blog about. This page is intended to help you spot high value stocks that might be trending upward and also to help you spot stocks with strange accounting practices.

    two stocks caught my attention:

  • Transocean International (RIG)
  • VEON (VEON)
  • Both these stocks show improving momentum but low Altman Z Scores, 5 year declining free cash flow and VEON shows increasing accruals. RIG is in a lousy industry (see discussion of SDLP below). VEON is a telecom company headquartered in Amsterdam. That industry should be OK, although they have a big bet on telephones in Pakistan. Personally, I think the supplemental information on this page highlights serious questions about these two stocks accounting practices and I would not touch them except maybe to short.

    Anyhow, I think there is good value on the Supplement page. Use it

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    June 20, 2017

    Just finished compiling the results of one of my accounts for the 12 months from June 19, 2016 to today. This account has been distributed 52.28% stock where I followed O'Shaughnessy's strategy, 40.28% in five Powershares ETFs, and the balance cash (at year end). The powershares ETF's gained 24.01% and the stocks gained 17.37%. Dividends from both sources accounted for 2.11% of the total gain in the account for the year.

    I have had good luck with Powershares ETFs. The way I picked the five Powershares funds was to simply pick the five with the highest five year historical yield. They all made a profit, but the best was one that specializes in "small high tech".

    I wish I could keep it all, but now it is time to calculate my uncle's share and make a tax estimate payment. That's a problem with the O'Shaughnessy system. Unless you are investing in a IRA or other tax sheltered account, you gotta pay tax when you roll it over.

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    April 21, 2017

    Sorry I missed a weekly update last week because I was on vacation crusing on the Snake and Columbia rivers and learning more about the early exploration of the US West.

    Now that I'm back in the saddle, I noticed a news article about Sea Drill partners (SDLP). Now SDLP continues to trade, their web site exudes happiness and it is still listed on the "top 10%" page on this web site. However, there is one news announcement on their web site regarding Amendments to Certain Credit Facilities that is pure poppycock AKA BS.

    Their earnings continue to beat analysts expectations and their financial statements are strong. But what the poppycock is saying is they cannot pay the banks for some loans they have gurarnteed for related companies, and they want the banks to release some collateral. At least that is what I get from trying to make heads or tails of the "news". You tell me how likely that is to happen.

    My point is this: when a company in a tough industry and really tough market continues to pay big dividends while trying to negotiate modifications to its loans, something smells fishy particularly where there are several related companies with the same management. I seriously doubt that the owners are concerned about my cash flow, but I'll bet they are concerned about their own. Maybe there will not be much left in a couple of months and the cash flow will end permanently. Just saying. The reason I brought this up is because, about a year ago, I made some pretty good money on SDLP, sold then bought back on price weakness and lost about 30% of my gain. My comments from a year ago are still on this page. Remember the numbers are only part of the story and in the famous words of La Peron in the movie "Evita", "They can be manipulated".