Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tis The Season

It's been a slow week posting-wise thanks to a busy week earnings season-wise. Earnings season is always a bit of a mind-numbing experience. Every day is met with a barrage of press releases, numerous analyst rating changes, and back-to-back conference calls with management explaining how their quarterly earnings would have been an all-time record if you just ignore the write-offs, higher commodity costs, lawsuits, accounting system transition issues, margin shortfall, higher tax rate, options expense, weather impact, goodwill amortization, order push-outs, and poor feng shui. It makes for some long days.

Of course, there are companies reporting good earnings -- mostly commodity-related companies, those benefiting from international growth and the weak dollar, and those that operate pawn shops. Those with the most excuses are the financials. The typical bank conference call this quarter can be summed up as follows:

We’re disappointed to report a record loss of 12 kajillion dollars, but our core business is performing strongly as you can see if you strip out the mark-to-market losses and the charge-offs.

Well, if I ignore my lack of buoyancy and my inability to breathe in the water, then I'm a world-class swimmer. They’re a bank! The purpose for their existence is to attract deposits/funds and invest the proceeds in securities and loans. It’s like Microsoft saying, “We had a great quarter aside from terrible software sales.”

Let’s be very clear. When a bank has to charge-off a good chunk of its loans, it's an admission that prior period earnings were overstated. Prior earnings benefited from these loans back when borrowers were actually making their payments and the bank wasn’t adding to reserves. These guys want the benefit of the overinflated prior period earnings but no penalty for the current period charge-offs. It would be genius if it weren't so ridiculous.

Despite some truly poor earnings in general from the financial sector this quarter, we did witness a very robust rally in the group. This wasn't terribly surprising. As I wrote on July 15th in my Trader VIX post,

...the VIX has had an uncanny ability to predict short-term rallies (lasting between 2 weeks to 3 months) in the S&P 500 (top chart) each time it has exceeded 30 in the past year. As the VIX has approached this level, I've been less inclined to initiate new short positions and more inclined to cover existing shorts. Note that the intraday high for the VIX today was 30.81.

It seems I wasn’t the only one watching the VIX. Almost as soon as the VIX crossed 30, the market made its most recent low and began its latest bounce. With financials having been sold-off so brutally over the prior 2 ½ months, it was no surprise that they benefited the most from the rally.

Also from the Trader VIX post,

In general, I'm expecting plenty of earnings misses and fairly restrained (to put it mildly) earnings guidance over the next month. But, with cash on the sidelines and a pervasive sense of gloom in the market, an earnings season short of cataclysmic may be just enough to spur the next bear market rally.

This also turned out to be the case. Prior to Thursday, the S&P 500 rallied more than 6% over a mere 6 trading days. Generally speaking, the earnings results from the financials were awful, but since they turned out to be less terrible than feared, the group enjoyed a powerful rally.

The other strong move of note this month has been the sell-off in practically every commodity and commodity-related company. I’ve been cautioning that this would happen at some point and that this is normal bull market activity. I had pared back exposure to the group and have been keeping some dry powder ready for just such a pullback.

In recent days, I’ve been gradually putting some of that dry powder back to work, adding to some energy, metals, and agriculture names. I anticipate adding further should investors continue to bail out. As for the financials, I've had no interest in chasing the latest rally. For now, I'm on the sidelines, but should the group rally further, I'll be looking to rebuild a short position in the sector.

My writing is likely to continue to be a little thin over the next couple of weeks since we're in the meat of earnings season. I'm not as effective or coherent a writer when I'm in an earnings release-induced state of catatonia.

Disclosure: The Rubbernecker is long commodities and caffeine and very short sleep.