Archive for April, 2020

Going against the crowd sucks.

You always feel like you may be wrong.

That really does take its toll emotionally.

It’s torture to watch something go up when it should be going down.

Or down when it should be going up.

It only feels better near the end, when the action turns.

If the action turns.

See what I mean?  Torture.

I’m a contrarian. It’s my observation that when everyone thinks one thing, the real, outsized opportunity is the other.

But what happens when everyone thinks one thing… but the market is thinking quite another?

Take AAPL. From a low of around $212 a month ago, it’s powered its way to almost $290. More impressively, just about 12% from its all-time high.

Heck, if you went way out on a limb, you could probably say that’s even within a normal trading range.  “Has the whole world stopped?  We didn’t notice!”

But all through this romp upwards, most Apple analysts have been decidedly negative.

Out of about 30 analyst moves in the last two months, a whopping 80% of them were downgrades.

To put this in context, Intel analysts were split 50/50 between upgrades and downgrades going into their earnings last Thursday.  So, relatively speaking, 80/20 to the negative side is a big spread.

 

 

As important, some of the AAPL downgrades were double downgrades… that is, a second price-target cut within just a few weeks.

So what’s the contrarian play here? Go against analysts and buy?  Or go against the market and short?

I think you go against the market. That’s the bigger “everyone” in this case.

Going against the market also seems, well, more rational to me.  I love Apple but I think the current market enthusiasm seems excessive given our uncertain environment:  Uncertain when lock-downs will end… uncertain that people will want to congregate at Apple Stores when they do… uncertain when we’ll see a vaccine… uncertain that a 2nd, or even 3rd, inflection wave may hit… and so on.

This uncertain environment is awesome for a select number of businesses… say Amazon and Netflix… but could be less kind to a (mostly) consumer hardware company like Apple.  Not that I’m not saying people can live without their iPhones — they can’t — but I am saying they may be less quick to buy $1,000 upgrades.

No doubt, what makes going against Apple scary is it’s one of a handful of companies that has the business levers to manage its way around a crisis like this.  And they are notorious for pulling rabbits-out-of-hats.

Still, a V-shaped recovery?  THE ENTIRE WORLD HAS SHUT DOWN.  Does a (mostly) consumer hardware company merit trading anywhere near an all-time high?  Does the market merit trading anywhere near an all-time high?  Somewhere in this equation there has to be some p-a-i-n.

I’m not the first person to say there’s a good chance we’ll see another downdraft.  So if Apple does surprise to the upside, AAPL could still take a tumble along with the rest of the market.  Nice to have a backup scenario in this situation.

P.S. A couple of other quick AAPL trading comments:

  • While Apple has done a terrific job moving into services, these are still only about 20% of company’s revenues. Meaning, Apple is still mostly a hardware company.
  • Intel, also a hardware company, has had a similar run-up as AAPL. Last Thursday INTC blew away their numbers, benefitting from the Coronavirus “work at home” situation. Apparently, with mobile being such a huge focus the last few years, home desktop machines have been ignored and needed updating.
  • In contrast, you don’t need to upgrade your iPhone to work at home.
  • One last data point: Even though Intel blew out numbers, INTC finished flat for the day.

There should be no doubt that greed makes people do funny things.

Take investing in oil.

Sure, there’s a lot of companies that truly want to buy oil.  To create gas.  Asphalt.  Lubricants, paint thinners, and dry-cleaning solvents.  Charcoal briquettes.  Wax birthday candles and crayons.  Polyester shirts.  Plastic drinking cups, toothbrushes, and hair combs.  And so on.

But there are also a lot of people that simply want to trade in oil… without never, ever taking delivery of oil.

These traders have played a rather interesting game.  They buy oil contracts.  But these contracts actually oblige them to take delivery of oil, because, after all, that’s what they’re buying.

But remember they never, ever really want to take delivery of oil… I mean, where are they going to put it, in their swimming pool?

So the plan is always to sell the contracts before having to take delivery.

That’s the way it’s worked for a long time.

Until this week.

Hoping for a last minute Hail Mary (i.e., something that would spike the price of oil higher), it looks like a group of oil contract holders held on to their contracts a bit too long.

Normally this isn’t a problem.  There’s always a buyer at the right price, right?

Not if there isn’t readily available storage for that purchased oil!

And that’s what happened this week.  There was no readily available storage… which caught a group of traders with their proverbial pants down.  Faced with the prospect of actually having to fill their swimming pools with black oil, these traders literally had to pay companies to take it off their hands.

And, thus, we saw the first NEGATIVE oil prices ever.

It didn’t last long.  And it wasn’t for that many contracts.  But it was a spectacular flame-out… an absolute spectacle to watch.

The lesson?  If you’re an oil trader and there isn’t any oil storage, DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE TO GET RID OF YOUR CONTRACTS.

And, except for a few isolated cases, chances are most oil traders won’t come anywhere close to doing that again.

Duh, right?

But, you never know.  :)

Anyone that reads this blog knows I root for oil to go down, down, down… because, while that doesn’t benefit an outdated oil industry, it does benefit every other person on the planet… and, oh by the way, it benefits the planet, too.

The facts all virtually guarantee oil will keep driving lower… because of lack of demand (remember the world has shut down!)… because of geopolitical bickering… and because — go figure — the world is really, truly almost out of oil storage.

Ha, those are some pretty great facts!

So why would anyone take a flyer on oil going up now, with oil trading in the low teens?

Because that’s what contrarians do… the opposite from what everyone else thinks.

Case in point:  After oil getting absolutely crushed over the last few days, it had a rather big pop today.

So oil can go up, if no other reason than a dead-cat bounce.

Or, let’s say there’s a threat of war… like what may have happened this morning given Trump told the military to shoot at any harassing Iranian gunboats they want.  Military disruption like that tends to spike oil prices.

Or, let’s say Trump just can’t help himself and he starts levying tariffs on foreign oil.  The U.S. is (sadly) the world’s biggest consumer — by a wide margin — so tariffs would mean the price of oil would be artificially raised in a rather meaningful way.

Or, let’s say that the world gets unbelievably creative and somehow finds a lot more storage space… like old train storage containers… or old storage silos or such… because it’s the lack of storage space that caused the extreme oil pricing mania yesterday.  (“What do you mean I have to keep all the oil in my swimming pool?!”)

Or, let’s say of the 70 vaccines in testing right now, one of them makes it to the finish line relatively soon.  The real possibility of the world reopening for business would also cause oil to spike.

Or, let’s say OPEC decides that their 9.7m barrels a day cut from a week or two ago was completely and utterly insufficient… and so they call another “emergency” session and cut oil by 30, no, 40 MILLION barrels a day… way more than anyone would expect… because they know the time for horse-shitting around is over.  That would send oil prices skyrocketing.

And, let’s say Trump can’t stand being out of the spotlight for more than 12 seconds and he politically forces the Saudis and Russians to cut supply… by offering guaranteed cuts from U.S. producers (something that was left off the table the last time OPEC got together).  With oil at perceived negative prices, he just might have the go-ahead to make that type of commitment.

Note that nothing above is, “when aliens invade the planet” crazy.

So, call it contrarian or whatever, but I just don’t trust that something, ANYTHING won’t happen to interrupt the greatest “fuck oil!” party ever.

Sadly.

Dow is a hair away from 24,000 as I write this.  Nasdaq a shade over 8,500.  We’re back to being closer to the top than the recent bottom.

Today’s action felt like it’s really, truly going to be a V-shaped recovery… that we should be back at our old highs in no time at all.

But… b-e-w-a-r-e.

Because it was just a few weeks ago that it felt like the crashing would really, truly never end.

And that’s what happens during a crisis… the mania swings in both directions.

Don’t get me wrong:  We have a lot going for us in this crash.  Oil is really low… and that’s my #1 requirement for an advancing economy.  Companies headed into this crisis with a lot more going for them, too (i.e., real growth, real revenues, and real profits).  And lots of technology companies are going to absolutely thrive in this crisis, for example, Amazon, Netflix, DoorDash… anything to do with the cloud… and so on.

And, critically, the government has backstopped everything with TRILLIONS in bailout money.  (“Oh, yeah, that.”)

But let’s call a few spades spades here:  THE ENTIRE WORLD JUST STOPPED!  That’s going to affect many, many more companies than will benefit.  Stocks ran up waaay too much before the crash, too, so even without a crash, they needed a 10-20% correction just to whack them back in line.  And — most significantly — no one really knows when we go back to normal.

This last point is the key.

This V-shaped rally — where stocks go straight down, then go straight back up, forming a “V” pattern — is almost entirely predicated on us getting back to normal soon.

As in, investors already know this quarter is going to be a disaster, but they think they might have the next one in the bag.

But what about the next quarter?

If I’m the CEO or CFO responsible for offering public company forward guidance… in this environment… there’s no way I’m touching that with a 10-foot pole.  That’s a guaranteed lawsuit just waiting to happen.

So, unless I’m one of the handful of companies that are crushing it during this crisis, there’s no way I’m going to be even the slightest bit optimistic about the future.  Because everything is uncertain.  How long this will last.  What the 2nd wave looks like.  Or the 3rd.  Or if people really are developing immunity.  And so on.

So I either give the biggest low-ball guidance in history — or what is happening more and more — I simply refuse to offer any forward guidance.

That’s when the next shoe drops.

When analysts and investors see this negativity… then try to understand this negativity… then realize they’re now really, truly flying blind… that’s when the rug gets pulled out from under them…

… and the market, too.

Because that’s not going to feel like “soon.”  That will, for a period, feel just like FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

It’s inevitable.

Because mania is inevitable.

Oil — really the cost of a unit of energy — affects the cost of EVERYTHING on the planet.

Which means that when oil prices go up, that FINANCIALLY HURTS everyone on the planet…

… including EVERY AMERICAN.

So why is Trump actively trying to drive oil prices higher?  In fact, why do all American presidents feel the need to do this?

I know people will say, “to protect America’s oil producers” … and so that we’re not strategically dependent on foreign oil.

Hogwash.

The way to do this is NOT to artificially raise set prices.  It’s to innovate.

Either we figure out a way to extract oil less expensively…

… or we figure out economically viable energy alternatives…

… say a conversion to natural gas, where we have a 100-year supply… or, electric cars… or solar-driven residential and commercial buildings.

And so on.

Anything but charging Americans MORE, which means we just end up FUNDING THE VERY PEOPLE THAT WANT TO DO US HARM MORE.

Sorry, energy industry.  Innovate or die.  Just like every other industry has had to do.  But don’t drag the rest of the country down with you.