I am retired and take educated guesses on all things financial.

June 25, 2008

June 25, 2008: It's All Relative

Coming upon some vacation time at our condo in Palm Beach Shores. Sipping my favorite adult beverages at the crystal clear pool or hot tubs looking at ocean front while having a great time with our family, most of whom got military leave to join us.

Yesterday we had a wonderful visit at our home by my always jovial cousin Mellonie who at age 67 sings like a pro, dances and acts half her age. What a joy to have her and her companion, Brit. fly from Siesta Key for a visit. My family gave them the royal treatment, followed by some extensive music making and fond conversation until the wee hours of the morning.

Work at times needs to be placed on the back burner as life needs joy, memories and passionate conversation seasoned with love - the finer things in life.

I'll be commenting on the blog as the mood strikes, especially is something appears urgent.

June 24, 2008

June 24, 2008: Dow Chemical: Oops

Foolishly in retrospect, I recommended and purchased Dow Chemical (DOW) a while ago expecting the stock to perform well, passing price increases for its petroleum-based products along to consumers and to increase production at plants located in oil-rich countries. Wrong.

True, price increases have and are been passed along the chain, including freight surcharges of $300 per truck shipment and $600 per rail,effective August 1st.

Unfortunately Dow has announced a large number of plant idlings in ethylene oxide, acrylic acid, styrene and polystyrene due to high costs and weak demand. You don't idle plants when you have pricing power. Generally, you raise prices. So what the plant closings tell investors is that Dow Chemical is trying to bring supply down to where demand is. In capital markets, one does not idle capacity unless there is a compelling need.

Continued pressure on margins obviously continues to haunt DOW as they move up faster than prices. One hope for the stock at this point is for a significant stock buyback to occur.

DOW is trading at $36.58 per share within a fifty-two week range of $47.96-$33.01. Sporting a 4.59% dividend that appears safe, DOW trades at a PE of 12.3 and is significantly below its 200-day moving average. Volume the past several days has been extremely heavy as the stock has trended downward.

I am going to hold DOW in my portfolio. The price of oil may be at its peak in which case DOW is a good stock to own. The dividend does provide some cover and, the company is well managed and internationally diversified. I am not buying more on a double-down. Being foolish does not have to be taken to a lower level.

June 22, 2008

June 22, 2008: Let 'Em Eat (Cheese)Cake: CAKE

The Cheesecake Factory is a well managed operation. It maintains a unique brand with few direct competitors. CAKE appears to have effective cost management, and there have been some improvements noted in regards to capital management.

However, there are issues that will impede CAKE's growth. The restaurant chain has an above average reliance on produce which in the present environment is inflationary. The reduced ability to contract other raw materials into 2009 may also upwardly spike their twice-yearly price adjustments. High exposure to sub prime loans and destination markets (40% of Cheesecake's stores). Reliance on retail shopping for some traffic, where weakness in a recession could be pronounced. Regarding destination locations, high gas prices and a lack of benefit from "trade down" diners will not help, thus increasing the likelihood of lower single digit profit gains. This will have a negative impact on the restaurant's market price premium for casual dining. Finally, any promise of privatizing CAKE and extracting a premium for the chain in the current market environment is minimal.

The Cheesecake Factory has approximately 139 full service restaurants in thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. The company also owns several Grand Lux Cafes in nine states. Within the Disney empire, CAKE operates The Cheesecake Factory Express self-service restaurants. It also has a food service operation with distribution centers in California and North Carolina. CAKE has recently begun a bakery cafe operation which is being marketed to other food service operators.

Trading at $16.98 per share, CAKE is near its 52-week low ($28.24-16.59) and since mid-May has fallen significantly below the 200-day moving average.

I usually eat at The Cheesecake Factory when I am out of town. The restaurant chain is consistently good with service, cleanliness, portions and quality. For a chain restaurant, the atmosphere is better than many. For the unfamiliar, CAKE's menu can be daunting with over two hundred items from which to choose. And when one is ready for desert (a duty at CAKE), bon apetite wandering in the forest of cheesecake concoctions.

While I appreciate CAKE's efforts to present a huge variety of good food, the stock itself will continue to suffer from recession and energy-related inflation pressures. I would nibble at CAKE around $13/share if a restaurant chain is on your Buy list as a marker to own post-energy and recession malaise.

June 19, 2008

June 19, 2008: Ethanol, No Field Of Dreams

If you haven't sold you ethanol securities yet, too bad for you. There have been plenty of warnings about ethanol stocks and the choice of ethanol as a fuel of subsidy and political hucksterism. Now, ethanol producer profit margins are being crushed by soaring corn and natural gas prices. It's enough to make your average greenie weep. It's enough to make your average investor weep as well, except for the shorts.

New ethanol plant cancellations continue. VeraSun on Monday announced the delay to the start up of two nearly completed plants. Twenty-four other ethanol plants have also been delayed or cancelled in the past few months around the United States that were supposed to produce 2,195mgy's of fuel annually. Further plant delays and outright cancellations are anticipated because of the aforementioned low margins.

Four ethanol companies trading publicly have been put on many analysts' hit list:
Aventine Renewable Energy (AVR)
ConAgra Foods (CAG) for reasons including, but not limited to, ethanol
Pacific Ethanol (PEIX)
VeraSun Energy (VSE)

Some argue that a rebound in ethanol is inevitable. I cannot quarrel with that train of thought. There is a season for practically every investment sector. However, there are at least three risks that may knock ethanol out of the box regarding a price recovery relative to gasoline:

If ethanol economics improve, the rapid return of partially constructed or mothballed plants would likely make the recovery a brief event.

The political situation for corn ethanol is uncertain in post-November's landscape. Corn ethanol has become a controversial topic this past year once the negative unintended consequences of grain for fuel became known. The current meteoric rise in corn prices due to the flood crisis in the mid-west may put pressure on the incoming President and Congress to take action. There is a good chance that the Renewable Fuels Standard (ethanol mandate) will be altered - in the battle of food vs. fuel, food wins.

The price of corn is well beyond the ability of ethanol companies to control (or even forecast).Casting the blame on Global Warming is getting a well-deserved cool reception at present. "Acts of God" such as the flooding are always possible. Feedstock is vital to our country and other countries that import our meat, grain and grain by-products for human consumption.There are hundreds of years of coal and, by reasonable estimates, a three generation supply of crude oil and six generation supply of natural gas that can be relatively easy to extract (given the political will to do so). Much of it is in North America and other friendly confines. Food riots,inflation, lowered standards of living and life choices imposed by environmental elitists on us mere mortals are not options that will prevail.

Still, there is the chance that the spike in corn prices will reverse next year. Credit Suisse Analysts have pointed out that after the severe floods suffered in the corn belt during 1993, crop yields grew dramatically the following year vs. 1991-2.
For the ethanol crowd, this kernel of hope may stalk naysayers and produce positive results in 2009 and beyond.

June 16, 2008

June 16, 2008: CarMax, Running On Fumes

CarMax (KMX) is set to release earnings on June 18th, and it likely will not be pretty. There is a deep decline in new car, truck and SUV-type sales, with an extreme mix shift from SUVs and trucks to more fuel efficient cars which are new - not used. Consumers trading down from new to late model used cars usually provides a sales cushion for the likes of CarMax and other secondary market dealers, but rapid price declines of over 15% year to year in widely owned gas guzzlers, coupled with much tougher credit, limited home equity and a weaker economy have made the consumer upside down on loans and unable or unwilling to trade into another vehicle. CarMax has had to write down inventory in a significant fashion. Plus, new car dealers are offering almost give away incentives which slows traffic at the CarMax lots. Why buy old when you can buy new, if a gas guzzler is what you want?

Recent statistics have shown the widest divergence ever between retail and wholesale trends covering two years. And consumers appear to be less willing to sell their vehicles to CarMax when they learn that they will get a lot less money than expected due to market price declines.

Financially, CarMax recently completed a private placement to create liquidity. Accounting rules FAS 149 and FIN 46, as proposed now, would eliminate CarMax's ability to use gain on sale accounting practices, which would significantly impact the timing of income recognition.

Between gas prices, home equity scarcity,sharply lower auto purchasing and a glut of unwanted gas hogs on the lots, CarMax (and the industry as a whole) is suffering with no end in sight.

Trading at $18.23/share, KMX stock is close to its 52-week price range of $16.81-$27.42. With a $4b market cap, KMX is considered to be the premiere previously owned vehicle dealer in the U.S.

I believe the downward trend for KMX will remain in place, and I would not buy the stock even at this low price. In fact, I would short it anticipating a fall to slightly under $12.00/share.


June 15, 2008

June 15,2008: A Clean Look At The Environment

Years ago, Libertarian Harry Browne published a novel position paper on the environment and how to resolve pollution issues. You may find his approach interesting and controversial. I find the premise engaging.

The word "environment" covers a multitude of issues -land and water pollution, conservation, recycling, global warming, the ozone layer, air and water quality, endangered species and even population control.

Land and Water Pollution:

When environmentalism became a religion in the 1970s, little attention was paid to the ownership of the properties being polluted. Important questions were never asked publicly:

Why would the owner of a lake or river allow it to be used for dumping chemical wastes - a practice that would destroy the value of the property?

Why would the owner of a forest cut the trees for profit, and then ignore the future profits to be made by replanting?

At first glance, pollution doesn't seem to make sense. Why would anyone destroy the value of their own property? Would you intentionally pollute your front lawn knowing this would make your home worth less? Not likely.

And yet, many properties throughout the United States and the world are losing value because the owners have allowed them to become polluted. In most cases, the culprits are governments.

The key to understanding pollution problems is a simple fact. Most pollution has occurred on government property - on government lands, and in government streams, rivers and lakes.

There are three ways pollution occurs:

1. Private companies can pollute their own property.
2. Governments can allow private companies to pollute government property.
3. Governments can pollute their own property.

When you read that some company has polluted a river or a lake, realize that the government owns the waterway, and it has failed to keep it clean.

Funny that public outrage over pollution isn't directed at the government - only at corporate polluters. And when the outrage reaches a crescendo, governments often respond by harassing private companies and property owners - those who have kept much better care of their property than the government has.

Quite often, when direct comparisons are made, private ownership equals "clean" while government ownership over the decades equals "polluted".

For example, the government-owned forests in the Blue Mountains in Oregon have suffered permanent damage. Nearly all the seed-bearing pines have been destroyed and much of the forest has been devastated by insects. Next to this forest is a Boise Cascade forest that has suffered practically no insect damage. Boise uses logging practices that keep the forest replenished, protecting its investment. As a result, the Boise Cascade forest looks very much as it did a century or more ago.

The same comparisons exist when properties are used for mining and grazing. Private owners protect and rarely pollute, but when private companies lease government property, neither the companies or the government have any incentive to protect the value of the property.

The most effective way to reduce pollution and waste is to have the government sell its properties to companies who will safeguard their future value.

The EPA estimates the cost of cleaning up all sites the U.S. government has polluted to be in the neighborhood of $325 billion dollars - five times the cost for all the privately polluted SuperFund sites.

The solution to America's pollution problem is to get as much property as possible out of the hands of government. Private owners will always take better care of land and other resources because they worry about their future productivity and resale value. Governments have no incentive to care about future value of anything under their care unless it is politically expedient.


Air pollution is more complicated than land or water pollution. It isn't easy to define ownership and sort out air pollution problems in court. Five points are overlooked when people call upon the U.S. government to clean up the air:

1. The Constitution gives the federal government no authority to regulate air quality.
2. What does the federal government have to do with dictating air quality in individual cities? Do we really believe that Washington politicians know what's best for every part of the country? Or that money sent to Washington will become even more valuable than if it were left behind in the state from which it came?
3. Environmental regulations are weapons for the politically connected, just as any other government activity is.
For example, the EPA forces a new factory in Tennessee to install the same anti-pollution equipment as a plant in Los Angeles needs, even though Tennessee has no smog problem. This imposes unnecessary costs on the Tennessee company.
4. Cars built in the 1960s polluted much less than cars of the 20s,30s,40s and 50s. But in 1960 there was no EPA. Why did automakers build cleaner-burning cars? Because that is what people wanted - and once the technology was available, that's what they got. Government doesn't have to force manufacturers to provide what people want. But, if we let politicians decide what's good for people, we are giving the politicians the power to exploit people on behalf of those with the most political influence.
5. When politicians address an issue, they almost always focus only on the highly publicized areas and ignore aspects that might be more important - or fail to recognize unintended consequences of their actions (ethanol, anyone?).

Whatever may be the best remedy for air pollution, it certainly is not to give politicians the power to force their choices on your car, your city, or your life.


Government subsidies for recycling programs assure that valuable resources will be wasted.

There is a simple test to determine whether some resource is scarce enough to warrant recycling. If the price of a recycled item is less than the price of producing a brand new item, it's time to recycle.

If you don't get paid when you turn in items to be recycled, and if recycled items cost more than brand new products, it's obvious that the recycling process is using more precious resources than those that produce the item from scratch. It that case, recycling merely satisfies someone's belief that sacrificing your time and money will make you a better person. It's a religious matter, not a conservation issue.


The same principle applies to other environmental enthusiasms. If the government has to subsidize alternative energies such as ethanol and solar, it is obvious that the government is trying to induce us to quit using a resource in ample supply and switch to a more expensive one in shorter supply.


Is recycling necessary to offset a shortage of places to put trash?

No. If all the solid waste for the next thousand years were put into a single space, it would take up 44 square miles of landfill - .01% of the U.S. land space.

Recycling does not save trees - it eliminates them. Trees are planted in response to future demand for new paper and timber products. If people recycle paper products, fewer trees are needed and fewer are planted - just as the supple of grains, meat, minerals or anything else is a response to the demand for these items.

So, if you throw away paper products after you've finished with them, don't feel guilty. Feel proud that you're reducing pollution, saving valuable resources and inspiring timber companies to plant more trees.


From the cranberry cancer scare of the 1950s to the Alar-in-apples hysteria on the 1980s, from the "New Ice Age" of the 1960s to Global Warming at present, environmental alarms almost always turn out to be false. Few non-political scientists fear ozone loss, global warming or acid rain. These are issues that some people hope to use to reorder the lives of the rest of us.

The Carter Administration's Global 2000 Report predicted mass starvation, massive amounts of pollution and increasing hunger and poverty for all people by the year 2000 unless "the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends". Decisive action, of course, was further government control of all resources. Of course, none of these global calamities came to pass.

Funny, when the New Ice Age that was predicted in the 1960s didn't pan out, Global Warming took its place. What's next - dangerously moderate temperatures?

These scares - and many more like them - were all accompanied by urgent demands that the government take action and thereby reduce the freedom of mankind to wantonly destroy Mother Earth and impose oppressive controls on your life.

As with all of the above, the preferred solution is always the same: MORE GOVERNMENT.

The politicians and environmental extremists make most of the noise, but there are tens of thousands of Americans who are doing things that actually make a positive impact on the environment. Energy-efficient plants, deregulation of the power industry so that power companies will have an incentive to reduce energy costs, the Nature Conservancy instead of government controlled lands, changing habits through buying more efficient vehicles etc.,etc.


"Conserving resources" means taking them from you and putting them under political control.

"Ending global warming" means forcing you to pay higher taxes for entremist projects that lack scientific certainty.

"Recycling" means vast power for those who will decide what you must recycle and what you'll be allowed to throw away.

"Protecting endangered species" means the power to seize your land and stop growth that is often vital towards maintaining our standard of living.

"Controlling pollution" means controlling you.

For politicians the environment is the perfect issue. We should remember that no problems will be solved by people who gave us the U.S. Postal Service, the bank crisis and the tax code.

A great deal will be improved by reducing the federal government to its Constitutional limits, telling the politicians to stop playing Junior Scientist, and let motivated individuals deal with the problems society discovers.

June 11, 2008

June 11, 2008: Up, Up and Away

The next three days will be spent on apartment rehabilitation in Columbus, OH and a new home construction venture in NC near Wilmington.

If something worthwhile comes to mind for the blog during these busy day, I'll publish it. Then again, there are the Bar-B-Que pits and the off-the-boat fresh fish to consider. The blog may lose.

June 09, 2008

June 9, 2008: Stocks That Will Be Negatively Impacted When (if) Oil Hits $150.00/barrel

Many e-mails from my blog commented to me stating that the list of stocks appreciating with oil at $150.00 contained some surprises and made for a useful beginning for research. With that in mind, here is what the team at Credit Suisse First Boston came up with for stocks that will be hard hit at that oil strike price:

Sunoco (SUN)

Alcoa (AA)

Dow Chemical (DOW)

USAirways (LCC)

Overseas Shipping Group (OSG)

BE Aerospace (BEAV)

Clorox (CLX)

American Axle (AXL)

General Motors (GM)

Ford (F)

Sears Holdings (SHLD)

Cabela's (CAB)

Royal Caribbean (RCL)

Annaly Mortgage (NLY)

Citi (C)

AmeriCredit (ACF)

TDAmeritrade (AMTD)

Tyco Electronics (TEL)

Global Payments (GPN)

Advanced Medical Optics (EYE)

Becton Dickinson (BOX)

I do not agree with the Dow Chemical selection, as DOW is producing lots of product in countries that have the oil at subsidized prices. I like DOW.

I had a few critics at a companion web site that were critical of my "list" without research to back it up. Two points, the research is for CSFB subscribers and I am not going to copy a twenty-eight page report. Second, going to the websites of the few who wrote beefing about seeing just a "list", I saw a managerie of hacked graphs with obscure trends that would have made Benjamin Graham smile - or roll over in his grave.

This above list is a starting point to begin your own research, be it fundamental or via some pseudo-gospel bobs and weaves on a chart.

June 07, 2008

June 7, 2008: Excellent Stocks When (if) Oil Hits $150

I had been musing some stock picks if oil rose to around the $150.00/barrel mark. Credit Suisse First Boston very recently distributed a thorough analysis of precisely this idea.I defer to their expertise. CSFB also has a superb Alternative Energy stable of analysts worldwide. I believe that they are on top of the energy scenario from a multitude of perspectives.

Here are their selections:

CPX - Complete Production Services
PTE - Patterson-UTI Energy
NE - Noble Energy
COP - Conoco-Phillips
DNR - Denbury Resources
PXP - Plains Exploration and Production
VQ - Venoco, Inc.
EAC - Encore Acquisition
WLL - Whiting Petroleum
FSR - First Solar
CNX - Consul Energy
APD - Air Products
FLR - Fluor
BCI - Chicago Bridge and Iron
ADM - Archer Daniels Midland
BG - Bunge
WDR - Waddell and Reed
BPO - Brookfield Properties
ICE - Intercontinental Exchange
CTSH- Cognizant

This list is a start. Do appropriate research and see what fits into your portfolio.

June 05, 2008

June 5,2008: Hitting a BRIC Wall

Investing globally is viewed by most as an essential portfolio strategy. I can't take issue with this, as I am one of those who believe this to be true. Truth is, I am probably over-weight in foreign securities. Occasionally it is a good idea to remind oneself that buying securities in such bastions of economic and legal stability such as China, Russia, Brazil and, to a certain extent, India does come with increased risk, and the potential to loose a great amount of capital in a short period of time.

China loves investment - on its own terms, as it controls many stocks through special voting rights and exercises control to the extreme over practically any venture that threatens to loosen the communist dogma that is omnipresent, albeit with a smiling face at present.

Russia and its adjacent minion States are slipping backwards as investment opportunities, selectively confiscating capital invested by foreigners and dictating a "power putsch" against many exploration and infrastructure companies once capital has been expended on projects that are just about ready to turn a profit.

India is a maze of conflicting rules, regulations and corruption that twists democracy to produce a constant squeeze on companies to feather the nests of the ruling class and tossing a bone here and there to the massive welfare state through oppressive taxation, employment demands and playing the old game of "west vs. east" in the political and economic arenas.

Brazil presents an interesting and current case in point. The Brazilian Congress and Senate passed a bill last Friday that would abruptly increase the taxes on beer and soft drinks. Cola bottlers, for instance, would need roughly 20% price increases to consumers to offset the tax while brewers would need an almost 30% hike in price to break even under the proposed law. AmBev (ABV), Anheuser Busch (BUD), Coca Cola (KO), Coca Cola FEMSA (KOF), FEMSA (FMX) and ImBev (INTB.BR) would be impacted the most by this tax scheme. In the beer industry, as with soft drinks, the Brazilian government has installed flow meters in the production plants in order for the government to deal with tax avoidance by the smaller producers. This is likely to be expanded for all bottlers. The fact the the beverage tax passed both the Brazilian Congress and Senate seemed to catch most observers by surprise. Is Petrobas safe from a rude investor surprise?

No one should be taken off-guard by governments in developing regions implementing tax and control policies that run contrary to investors whom have put millions and billions of dollars into ventures only to have their efforts ruined, deliberately or not, by governments run by greed and/or extortion.

This article is harsh. Perhaps too harsh. However, it is prudent to remember that we have a unique and rich capital investment system in the United States and other recognized developed nations,despite all of the warts. Not every country we choose to invest in grants investors true and tested rights and privileges - just ask those bottlers in Brazil, the oil companies in Russia and power company AES in the backwaters of Kazakhstan. Invest globally, but consider marginal "rest of the world investments" as speculation.

June 01, 2008

May 31, 2008: Investing To Accomodate Change

Individual investors should always look ahead to probable tax consequences of investments. Surprisingly, little attention has been paid to two significant tax issues should a BHO victory occur in November, especially if a super majority of Democrats are inhabiting the House and Senate.

First,it is highly likely that brokerages will be required to report the cost basis of all securities transactions to the IRS. Now, only sales of securities are reported. Investors can minimize this new tax wrinkle by selling securities that will be hit hard by front/back government access to security records beginning in 2009 before December 31st, 2008, and then shift assets into tax efficient index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds in taxable accounts. I would go so far as to recommend that individual stock purchases be minimized or eliminated completely unless they are tax advantaged in some way (such as with Master Limited Partnerships). Unfortunately,stock speculation risk taking will be taxed up the ying-yang and may not be worth the time or trouble after Uncle Sam gets his cut, if future tax plans become a reality.

Second,BHO's current position is a 25% long term capital gain and dividend tax rate, with ordinary income tax rates as high as 39.6%, The estate tax would qualify for a $3.5m exemption and a 45% top taxable rate afterwards.

As for other tax schemes to fund mammoth government undertakings, who knows? With talk of John McCain being a Bush third term by Democrats, is it possible that an Obama victory will result in a Jimmy Carter second term? Investors hope not.

For non-taxable accounts, which almost always are designed towards a conservative bias, individual stocks,funds that trade frequently (such as small-cap growth funds) and otherwise taxable, dividend-rich securities are advisable.

According to FORBES (June 2, 2008), the following index funds and ETFs are the least expensive in their respective sectors. They will likely outperform comparitive objective managed funds. The following may fit your taxable account(s):

VANGUARD LARGE-CAP INDEX ETF (US Equity) expenses $0.07
E-TRADE INTERNATIONAL INDEX (International) expenses $0.09
ISHARES MSCI KOKUSAI INDEX (Global) expenses $0.25
BLDRS EMERGING MARKETS 50 ADR INDEX (Emerging Markets) expenses $0.30

Managed ETFs will play in increasingly large role in adapting to tax policy and what some would regard as the scheme to redistribute wealth are hatched by governmental entities at all levels.

The recently launched PowerShares Global Diversified ETF Portfolio ETFs(of ETFS) have received notoriety from myself and others. This type of ETF may be the investment vehicle of the future for many. Look them up at (PCA, PAO, PTO). I like PTO.

Regarding tax-advantaged securities, I have long advocated pipeline MLPs as an excellent investment vehicle. A current Forbes article (dated above) agrees. Although my selections are a bit different, I won't quarrel with the list presented by Gabriel Hammond, a young man with a pedigree resume. Here are his picks:

COPANO ENERGY yield 5.0%
INERGY yield 8.5%
LINN ENERGY yield 10.9%

Planning ahead is smart. Planning ahead with research and a conviction to succeed in spite of the barriers government installs to take away your hard-earned money is divine.