The year ahead, markets version

Ah the years end prediction exercise. It is of course a mostly useless exercise since not a one of us can predict what shocks, positive or negative, the world and the markets could see in 2011. I find it crack up laugh out loud funny that some pundits come out and offer up earnings estimates, GDP growth assumptions and interest rate guesses to give a precise level for the year end S&P 500 price. You might as well pick numbers out of a bag and rearrange them by lottery to come up with a year end number. In a world where we are fighting two wars, a hostile government holds the majority of our debt and several sovereign nations continually teeter on the edge of oblivion it’s pretty much ridiculous to assume what could happen in the year ahead. Having said that, as my son’s favorite WWE wrestler when he was a little guy used to say “It’s time to play the game!”

Ill start with bonds. I have owned puts on the long term treasury market for two years now. I gave some back in 2010 after a huge gain in 2009 but am still slightly ahead. Ill roll the position forward and buy January 2012 puts and stay short. When I look at bonds I hear some folks talking about rising basic commodity prices and worrying about inflation. They are of course correct. This is happening. I hear some other really smart folks talking of weak real estate, high jobless rates and the potential for falling back into recession. Naturally, they are also exactly correct. So I will predict the one thing no one else is. We are on the verge of good old fashioned 1970s style stagflation. Commodity and basic needs prices will accelerate as QE2 has at least stimulated demand from emerging markets by allowing these wonderful credits to borrow money cheaper than a school teacher with a 750 FICO score. Bonds go lower as rates spike. Our economy and balance sheet are a mess and we have governments run by men in tin hats lecturing us on fiscal responsibility. “How low will they go Tim?” How the hell do I know? I just think they go lower by enough for me to profit.

Nor can I tell you where the stock market will go this year. I suspect we have had it too good for too long for no reason so I think we get at least one spectacular gut wrenching, vomit inducing sell off during the year. Much as lower than expected profits exposed the silly valuations of the new paradigm stocks I think that the darling group, retail , will spark a selloff in the stock market this year. Sales will be up a little bit but except for Tiffany’s (TIF) and that luxurious ilk margins are horrific. Discounting started early this holiday season and grew from there. They will get steeper now that that Santa Claus has given back my credit card and returned to the great white north. The earnings season will see a lot of missed estimates and lowered forecasts and that could well pop the bubble. Once it starts the HFT boys and girls should make sure it goes lower than anyone expects.

Here’s the thing about my prediction. It is no better than anyone else’s. In other words I am talking my book and predicting what I hope will happen. Having learned this lesson over the years I have alos learned that when it comes to market timing and market direction I am probably the dumbest guy in the room. Because of that I have trained myself to always buy the stuff that’s too cheap not to own and hold it regardless. After the rally since September truly cheap stuff is a little scarce on the ground but I have found enough to be about 40% long going into the year. I have a watch list as long as a taller persons right arm but most of it hover above truly cheap.

Here is what I own going into the year and think is still cheap enough to buy. I like Winn Dixie (WINN). The grocery business sucks right now. Wal mart has crushed margins industry wide. That aside WINN trades at 60% of tangible book value and at some point their 514 stores in the Southeast will attract attention from investors. A takeover here would be less than shocking. I will add Presidential Life (PLFE) to the list. This stock is also at 60% of tangible book and I expect to see a lot of M&A activity in the insurance sector this year> this should raise valuations across the board. I like Miller Petroleum (MILL) with their drilling presence in Alaska and the shale field soft Tennessee. This one trades at 70% of tangible book. I’ll add Imperial Sugar (IPSU), Syms (SYMS) and Micron Tech (MU) and Avatar Holdings (AVTR) to my list of cheapies and move on for now.

I am going to start building my small bank portfolio this year. Eventually this group becomes the “Fuck you walk away money” trade of the decade. As real estate losses work through the balance sheet and some measure of stability returns to the financial system, perhaps toward the end of the year, the small baileys savings and loan type banks should start to recover. We will also see a mind blowing M&A wave as larger banks look to gain not just market share but healthy assets to put on the books. Right now these names trade at a fraction of tangible book value. They will reach a multiple of that in a recovery or takeover scenario. Right now I own shares of Shore Bancshares (SHBI), a local bank trading at 80% of book value and a reasonably healthy loan portfolio. I have some other mini microcap banks as well that shall remain my little secret and not used to figure how my predictions work out. I mention them because if you have a mini micro bank in your community you should go meet the bankers, review the books and consider investing if it trades below the magical tangible book value and has excess capital. Flagstar Bancorp(FBC) is my super longshot undated call option on the economy and real estate markets.

I will also play the thrift conversion game heavily this year. With the elimination of the Office of Thrift Services under the new financial regulation many of the benefits of being a private or mutual thrift are going away. There are a ton of mutual savings banks that will now convert to publicly traded banks. A lot of these deals will be priced below the pro forma book value that is created by adding all that lovely IPO cash to the balance sheet without a corresponding increase in the shares outstanding. Right now I have Fox Chase Bancorp (FXCB) and Capital Federal Financial(CFFN). There will be more. Deals are happening every day right now and again I would keep an eye out for local deals that you can take advantage of in the next few months.

I also think that 2011 will be the year of the activist investor. These folks took a beating since 2007 but this should be their year. There is a ton of cash on corporate balance sheets but lots of underperformance in the current economic environment. We will see activist drive takeovers, restructures, and special dividends this year in my opinion. Recent filings of interest include strong activist positions in Surmodics(SRDX), SeaChange International (SEAC), and Energy Solutions. Tracking activist portfolios and 13D filings should be a very profitable activity in 2011.

I have been looking at some interesting new stuff with options as well I am not going to give most of it away just yet but I ll give you one stimulated by a recent list discussion. H and R Black is highly likely to go into a private equity portfolio next year. Management has made every mistake you can make and the loss of RALs is a big problem for the company. However the brand has real value. I do not want town the stock just yet but I like the idea of selling the January 2012 at $.70 to $.75. If you cash secure the put it’s a 10% or so return if the stock stays above the strike. If it falls below I’ ll be happy to own the stock with a 6 handle net.

Back in 2008 everyone anticipated a huge default wave to hit the high yield market. Thanks to federal stimulus money pumping programs it did not happen. However in the spirit of “sell the dog food the dog will eat at the given moment” the hedge fund world raised an enormous amount od distressed debt money. Thanks to this high yield spreads are far too low. CCC paper in particular is priced at absurd levels. These things trade like money good paper and much of it is not. Extend and pretend has helped but if the economy stays weak and interest rates rise rolling over the tsunami of paper due over the next few years becomes nigh onto impossible. I am going take small position in puts on the various high yield ETFs. If I am right they will explode when that market implodes. Continuing to talk my book I hope this happens. Among my nightly prayers is “Please God just one more two year period of asset rich companies with current payments having bonds trade below recovery value and I promise not to piss the money away this time. Amen. PS. If you add in risk arbitrage spreads of 30% annualized returns along with this I would not object. Love, Tim.”

I can’t tell you what the markets will do. I do know that I want to own some safe and cheap stocks, some well capitalized small banks trading below book and participate in activist situation. I will be underinvested in equities going into the year hoping my watch list becomes my buy list in market stumble. I will have put positions on long T-Bonds and high yield hoping for a large asymmetrical payoff.

Other than that I am clueless.

Christ in Christmas

A well meaning perhaps, but closed minded, soul wrote this letter to a Maryland paper today.

Editor:

I am responding to the announcement I heard regarding Wachovia Banks decision not to place Christmas trees in any of their establishments because they may be offensive. Offensive to whom? I am suggesting that all Christians remove any and all accounts from Wachovia Bank, because if anything is offensive, it is their Christmas tree decision. It is time that Americans stand up for what they believe and not allow our traditions to become moot because they may offend someone in the minority. This country was founded on the belief of freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. The Christmas season is time for peace and acceptance of all faiths and beliefs – not the time to try and take Christ out of the season.

There was of course no way in hell I was not going to respond once this was bought ot my attention. I doubt they run by my reply was as follws

Editor:

In response to the recent letter by xxxxxxxx I can tell you as a Wachovia customer and stockholder in Wells Fargo, Wachovia’s parent company, her assumption is simply incorrect. It is the choice of each branch manager to display a Christmas Tree or not. I would also like to make the point that our country was founded on the principle of freedom of religion for all religions, not just yours or mine. Even if her assumption was true, to call for a boycott of a business based on their recognition or lack thereof of your particular religion is completely and totally un-American. Should we boycott the Jewish establishment because he does not put up a Christian symbol? Should we avoid doing business with atheists, Hindus, Buddhists or any other merchant or service provider who does not display artifacts of a particular faith?

We would do well to recall that religious freedom extends to all faiths, and even to a lack of faith. We may choose to do business with whom we wishes but to call for a boycott of any business based on their shared participation in your particular holiday runs against every single value upon which our nation was founded. Christmas is not a time of faith and belief for all religions. Celebrating the birth of Christ is uniquely Christian. Instead of asking for a boycott of a business we should practice some of the tolerance that is one of the hallmarks of Christ’s teachings.

I rather suspect in a world torn by war, poverty, hunger and disease God has more on his mind that where you keep your checking account. Perhaps those of us who call ourselves Christians should focus on those issues and let others bank where they wish without religious interference.

Before you ask, I have a great big honker tree in my house and celebrate the holiday with zeal. I also think that businesses and municipalities should be free to place symbols of the holiday wherever they so choose. They should also feel free not to without fear of boycott or discrimination from those of us who celebrate Christmas. That’s the American way I was taught and believe in to this day.

I am off to Wachovia to open accounts for my kids as an expression of the real meaning of freedom of religion. Merry Christmas!

Tim Melvin