The stock market is a giant distraction to the business of investing. - Jack Bogle
The S&P 500 rose for six straight days, and on Thursday, for the 13th time in a row, the index failed to extend a six-day winning streak into a seven-day streak. Nevertheless, the market continues to do well, which is exactly as I suspected. I'm still holding to my view that the market will rally well into 2013; this is a good time to be an investor.
This was an eventful week. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve made news by announcing economic triggers for its interest rate policy. The stock market responded by surging to a two-month high. I'll explain what it all means for investors in just a bit. Perhaps the best news of the week was that Nicholas Financial (NICK) joined the special dividend parade by announcing a monster $2-per-share dividend. Percentagewise, that's a big deal, and the stock surged.
Let me also remind you that next week, I'll unveil our 2013 Buy List. I won't start tracking the new list until the start of the year. I'm happy to report that the current Buy List is ending the year on a strong note. Since August 2nd, our Buy List has more than doubled the S&P 500, 9.2% to 4%. It looks like we're going to narrowly beat the S&P 500 for our sixth-straight market-beating year. Now let's take a look at the Fed's announcement this week and what it means for us.
The Fed Lays Its Card on the Table
Meetings of central bankers are usually rather dull affairs, and that's probably how it ought to be. This past week, however, the Federal Reserve actually did something interesting. For the first time, the Fed laid out specific trigger points for its interest rate policy.
Let me explain, and I'll try to avoid any econo-speak. When the economy went into the toilet, the Fed responded by slashing interest rates. In fact, they even cut rates to 0%. After all, that's what models say you should do. The problem was that the model even said to go into negative rates. The Fed responded by doing the equivalent--they started buying bonds--or as economists call it, "Quantitative Easing" (QE if you want to sound cool).
The Fed then ran into another problem. The central bank was simply announcing a bond-buying program with a price tag. Once that ran out, they announced another. Then another. Then in September, the Fed took a step back and said "Look, this isn't working. Forget these dollar amounts and deadlines. We're going to keep buying bonds and we're not going to stop until things get better. That's that."
To be more specific, the Fed said it was going to buy $40 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) each month. In practical terms, the Fed swaps assets with a bank. The Fed gets a risky MBS, while the bank gets low-risk reserves, which, I should add, are held at (guess where?) the Federal Reserve.
The game-changer in September wasn't the $40 billion number. It's that the Fed said it was going to go all in until things got better. By taking a time horizon off the table, the Fed sent a clear signal to investors that it was going to do what it had to in order to help the economy. But there was still the question "how will we know when things get better?" That's where this week's news comes in. But first let me quote the CWS Market Review from September 21:
In this week's policy statement, the Fed gave us an answer. They said they won't raise interest rates as long as the unemployment rate is over 6.5% (we're currently at 7.7%) and inflation is under 2.5%. Basically, this means that rates are going to stay low for a long while more.
There are a few key takeaways: This is especially good news for financial stocks. Nicholas Financial, for example, borrows money at the short end of the yield curve. The lower rates are, the better it is for them. In fact, I think a lot of the major banks are going for good values. Given the current conditions, I think JPMorgan Chase (JPM) will have a very profitable 2013.
The housing market should also continue to get better. This has been an underreported story this year. A key difference between the current "Quantitative Easing" and the previous attempts is that back then, the housing market was still in free fall. Now it's gaining strength, and in turn, that's helping consumers. We don't have the numbers in yet, but this may turn out to be a good holiday shopping season. We just got the retail sales report for November, and it was pretty good. The initial jobless claims report came very close to hitting a five-year low (which means the spike from Hurricane Sandy has now passed).
This new Fed policy will also be good for economically sensitive "cyclical" stocks. These are sectors like energy, transportation and heavy industry. There's also a key "double whammy" effect with cyclicals since they tend to outperform the market when the market itself is doing well. I like to follow how the Morgan Stanley Cyclical Index ($CYC) performs relative to the S&P 500, and it's improved very nicely since the summer. The CYC-to-S&P 500 ratio is close at an eight-month high. I should warn you that Q4 GDP will probably be a dud (0% to 1% growth), but we may see greater than 3% growth toward the latter half of 2013.
This week's Fed news is a clear signal that the Fed is in the investors' corner and is willing to boost the economy for several more quarters. The risk right now is finding yourself getting left behind. Now let's look at my second-favorite NICK of the holiday season.
Nicholas Financial's Special Dividend
On Tuesday, Nicholas Financial announced a special $2-per-hare dividend. In previous issues, I've talked about how companies have announced special dividends before the end of the year so they won't get hit by higher taxes, which are almost certainly on their way next year.
The major difference with NICK is that this is a pretty large dividend. It works out to be about 15% of the stock's value. The dividend will be paid out on December 28th to shareholders of record as of December 21st. Also note that NICK is a Canadian company, so there may be foreign tax withholdings (please consult your tax advisor).
I want to clear up a few things about this dividend. This news, by itself, doesn't do anything to boost NICK's value. It's simple math: Once the dividend is paid out, we can expect the shares to fall by $2. Since the dividend works out to be roughly one year's worth of profits, we shouldn't expect any dividends next year.
While the special dividend doesn't add value to NICK, the perception did, as the value of the stock rallied nicely on Wednesday, getting as high as $14.14 per share. Why did it rally? That's hard to say exactly, but it was probably an appreciation of the company's boldness. Think of it this way: You're not going to pull a big move like that unless you're pretty darn confident about your business's ability to rake in cash. Traders took notice. NICK continues to be a very good buy.
Earnings from Oracle and Bed, Bath & Beyond
Next week, we'll get earnings reports from Oracle (ORCL) and Bed, Bath & Beyond (BBBY). Also, BBBY will lay out some important planning assumptions for next year. Both of these companies wrapped up the end of their quarter in November.
Oracle made news last week by announcing that they're going to pay out their next three dividends before the end of the year in order to avoid the taxman. The company will report its fiscal Q2 earnings on Tuesday, December 18th. In September, Oracle told us to expect earnings to range between 59 and 63 cents per share. The Street expects 61 cents per share, which Oracle should be able to beat.
Last quarter, Oracle got dinged by currency costs. That's frustrating, but I'm not particularly worried, since those tend to be transient concerns. I'd be much more concerned by a downturn in their overall business, and Oracle isn't experiencing that. I'll be interested to hear what Ellison & Co. have to say about fiscal Q3 and how badly Europe is hurting then. I continue to like Oracle a lot and rate it a good buy up to $35 per share.
Bed Bath & Beyond is due to report on Wednesday, December 19th. In June, BBBY surprised Wall Street (and me) by guiding lower for their August quarter. The stock got hammered, and analysts quickly slashed their forecasts. When the results came out in September, BBBY still came in four cents below consensus. It was just an ugly quarter, which is very uncharacteristic of BBBY.
The problem is that Bed Bath & Beyond had become overly reliant on coupons to get feet in the door. I understand the temptation, but a retailer can't discount their way to sales for the long-term. I'm not giving up on BBBY. This is a very well-run outfit, and they've already steered their way though an historic housing bust. I think they can handle this.
Interestingly, the guidance for Q3 was 99 cents to $1.04 per share, which really isn't that bad. What traders seemed to overlook is that the company stood by its previous full guidance of earnings growth between the high single digits and low double digits. BBBY also has a rock-solid balance sheet. I currently rate BBBY a buy up to $62 per share. This is a solid company, and the shares are going for a good value.
Before I go, I want to make two adjustments to our Buy Below prices. Fiserv (FISV) has been a monster for us this year. I'm raising our Buy Below price to $83 per share. Moog (MOG-A) has been a lousy stock this year, but I think it's an exceptionally good value. I'm raising the Buy Below on Moog to $40 per share.
That's all for now. Next week, we'll get important reports on industrial production and retail sales. Also, the Fed meets on Tuesday and Wednesday. Following the meeting, Bernanke will hold a press conference. Be sure to keep checking the blog for daily updates. I'll have more market analysis for you in the next issue of CWS Market Review!