Option Investor

Daily Newsletter, Wednesday, 12/23/2009

Table of Contents

  1. Market Wrap
  2. New Option Plays
  3. In Play Updates and Reviews

Market Wrap

Rally Slows on Housing News, Small Caps Gain

by Judy Alster

Click here to email Judy Alster
Well, really, how long could we expect that pre-Christmas rally to last? News on Wednesday of an unexpected and heavy drop in November new home sales put a not-surprising wet blanket over the three-day rally. Still, stocks managed to rise.



Advancing issues outpaced decliners (as did advancing share volume).

Stocks started out mildly higher early after a report showing growth in consumer spending last month, then fell quickly in midmorning after the Commerce Department said sales of new homes plunged 11.3% to their lowest level since April. The EIA reported that draw in crude inventories was larger than expected, leading to gains in energy and other commodities and a concomitant fall in the dollar, which broke a 4-day streak. Stocks moved up on the dollar's fall, but drifted down into the close.


All three major indexes managed gains after trading in very narrow ranges all day. The Dow was up 1.51 points or 0.01% to close at 10,466, a bit below its 52-week high last Monday of 10,501.


The S&P was up 2.57 points or 0.23% at a new 52-week high, making relentlessly higher lows and level highs for two months. It's like an immovable object meeting an irresistible force.

The fall in new-home sales was especially disappointing since economists had forecast an increase and another report showed a better than expected gain in sales of existing homes. On the bright side, it didn't spur a huge selloff, which in itself may be a harbinger of much better times. Also, volume has been light all this holiday week, which can often exaggerate moves either way.


The slump from October's new-home-sale rate indicates that consumers are taking their sweet time to avail themselves of the deadline extension for the first-time buyers' tax credit. That was set to expire at the end of November, but Congress extended it to April 30 and expanded the program to include current homeowners who relocate. If Congress were just a wee bit smarter, it would be advertising that extension loudly all over the place, instead of hoping that citizens will pick it up by process of osmosis. As investors, we sometimes tend to think that everybody gobbles up the business and economics pages the way we do. But if you ask most normal people, they'll tell you they don't. Congress, take the hint.

New home sales data, incidentally, which monitor sales agreements signed the previous month, are a better indicator of future real estate activity than sales of previously occupied homes. So even though home resales rose 7% last month, most economists expect completed sales to decline during the winter months and keep buyer traffic flat until spring. In concert with that, the Mortgage Bankers' Association's purchase application index fell 11.6%; even the refinance index fell 10.1%, despite 30-year loans averaging 4.92%.

Builders clearly saw the storm coming: last week the National Association of Home Builders said its index of industry confidence fell to the lowest level since June. The group blamed high unemployment with its deleterious effect on high-ticket-item buying, and a slow economic recovery, which about covers it. Pulte (PHM) and KB Homes (KBH) were the only major builders to squeak out a gain Wednesday.


You candlestick folks will probably be thinking, "Looks like an evening star setup to me," especially since Pulte has a whole mess of debt. Thursday will tell us more.

Today's shining star was the small-cap-tracking Russell 2000, up 7.38 points or 1.18% to 630.98, well above its resistance near 624. One breakout doesn't make a trend, but if the Russell even just manages to stay there, this show of small-cap strength would give us a genuine confirmation that this upward trend has legs.


Personal income increased a respectable $49.7 billion or 0.4% at the fastest rate in four months, and disposable personal income (DPI) increased $54.1 billion or 0.5% in November, according to our statistics-mad friends at the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In tune with that, personal consumption expenditures (PCE, or you can just call it "shopping") increased $47.9 billion or 0.5%. That followed a 0.3% rise in DPI and a chunky 0.6% rise in PCE the previous month. Real disposable income, or what you have left after taxes, moved up 0.2% in both months. All in all, not bad, although it would have been reassuring to see expenditures keep pace with October. Both figures fell slightly short of analysts' expectations.

Private wages and salaries increased $16.1 billion in November, well up from the increase of $3.2 billion in October. Manufacturing payrolls increased $1.6 billion, up from a decrease of $2.4 billion; services industries' payrolls increased $15.7 billion, compared with an increase of $5.2 billion. The rise reflects the drop in unemployment last month to 10%. Just FYI, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that "it is reasonable to expect employers will start adding jobs by the spring." However, economists concur that growth remains too weak to sustain a strong economic recovery. To which one might reply, "Hey -- half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, yo."


Crude oil imports down, distillate demand up, and last week 4.9 million barrels of crude oil disappeared from inventory, leaving us with 327.5 million barrels (which is still near the upper limit of average), while distillate inventories vanished to the tune of 3.1 million barrels despite an increase in distillate production. That drop reflected demand for home fuel (with winter coming in like gangbusters and all). Crude imports averaged 7.7 million barrels per day last week, down 65,000 bpd from the previous week. Domestic refineries produced less gasoline in the week at the same time that gasoline imports were down, making for a 0.9 million-barrel draw in gasoline stocks despite little change in driving demand. Refineries with their cellophane margins are still operating at 80% of capacity; refinery inputs averaged 13.8 million barrels per day last week, about 27,000 bpd below the previous week's average. In the last month, gasoline demand rose 0.8% year over year. February crude prices spiked up over $2 or 2.7% to around $76.50 on the news, taking oil stocks and oil funds with them. Oil looks like it could hit $80 a barrel without conscious deliberation.


Purely FYI, the final reading for the December University of Michigan Consumer Confidence report was revised down to 72.5 from 73.4; estimates on average called for a slight pickup to 73.8. The indexes for both current conditions and the economic outlook were adjusted lower, the former moving from 79.1 to 78.0, the latter going from 69.7 to 68.9. A minor jolt, but remember that this time last year the overall reading stood at 60.1. As your cranky Aunt Muriel might say, "Confidence, shmonfidence. Spending activity is much more closely tied to income than to confidence, so just take this stuff with a grain of salt. Now go make me a gin and tonic." (Wait. That was my Aunt Muriel.)

Come we now to retail. Store managers are saying that this year's brick-and-mortar sales are so-so, if that. Add the recent snowstorm that hit the Atlantic states and the Northeast, and the one sweeping the entire northern and central plains as we speak, and it could turn out to be a blue-ish Christmas. In addition to making a perfect mess out of travel plans, the weather is forcing last-minute shoppers, of which there are more than a few, to stay home. So far from preliminary reports, sales in the Northeast were down 17.3%.

Online sales, however, are on the rise; they were up 13% on Saturday, rising some 6% to $4.8 billion for the week, and they outstripped last year's online sales almost every day during Thanksgiving week. As witness Amazon, up $5.50 or 4% today and up 172% year to date. It's one of the rare stocks that started coming out of the doldrums long before March 2009.


In earnings, Linux-operating-system leader Red Hat (RHT) announced third-quarter earnings late Tuesday and saw a nice jump into a new range Wednesday, where it stayed. Yes, its net income fell by 32% percent as the company grappled a legal settlement and higher operating expenses, among other troubles. But results still exceeded Wall Street's forecasts and the stock traded on heavy volume. With items, the company earned $16.4 million or 8 cents per share, down from $24.3 million or 12 cents last year. Revenue was up 18% to $194.3 million.


American Greetings Corp. (AM) saw very heavy volume Wednesday after announcing a swing to Q3 profit of $29.7 million or 75 cents a share, from a loss of $193.3 million or $4.25 a share a year ago, better results than expected after last year was slammed by write-downs and restructuring. Revenue fell to $440.2 million from $454.1 million in the absence of retail operations the company sold last year. The company raised its fiscal-year cash flow estimate, by $35 million to at least $195 million.


And in the Life is Real and Life is Earnest Department, shares of uniform-maker Cintas Corp. (CTAS) fell Wednesday after the company announced a lower quarterly profit amid high unemployment. Late Tuesday the company announced that it earned $57 million or 37 cents per share in the Nov. 30 quarter, down from $71 million or 47 cents per share a year ago. Revenue dropped 10% percent to $884 million. Both results missed estimates. Cintas is directly affected by the staffing levels of its customers; with the unemployment rate last month at 10% and the Fed saying it will stay above 8% for the next two years (!), what can one expect.

For Cintas' 2010 fiscal year ending in May, analysts on average predict income of $1.75 per share on revenue of $3.58 billion. Cintas's CEO warned them that their 2010 expectations were "too optimistic." Oh, the analysts loved that: The stock plummeted $3.33 or 11.2% on huge volume. The company is likely to post revenue declines in uniform rentals for the next several quarters.


Jumping on an upgrade was healthcare facility operator Tenet (THC), one of Wednesday's top gainers in the S&P500. Apparently at least one analyst thinks the company will continue to improve its margins and increase its inpatient admissions but more important, Tenet is expected to benefit if healthcare reform passes and expands insurance coverage. That wouldn't happen until 2014, but the prospect should support hospital-related stocks over the next few years.


Ethernet pioneer 3Com Corp.'s (COMS) second-quarter earnings rose 55% thanks to a tax benefit, fewer write-downs than the year before, and to sales that didn't fall too badly. 3Com posted a profit of $20 million or five cents a share, well up from $12.9 million or three cents last year. Exclude the one-off items and earnings fell to nine cents from 12 cents, which still beat expectations, on revenue of $322 million.

The tech sector will almost always struggle in a recession as corporations and consumers hold on to their wallets, with 3Com no exception. That leads to a wave of M&A activity, like last month's announcement that 3Com would be taken over for $2.7 billion by Hewlett-Packard (HP) in its attempt to become a one-stop technology shop for big companies. Eventually the recession fades . . . leaving tech well-positioned for the inevitable strong rise in spending. HP's stock didn't even blip down on the announcement and is up 5% since then. As if on cue, the Nasdaq-tracking Powershares QQQ (QQQQ) edged into new territory; it's up 75% since March.


Predicting short-term market moves is the original mug's game (although we all try to do it). Still, even with an annoying housing situation and painful unemployment, the stock market seems to have truly turned the corner. At this point, technology and small caps look like leaders. Stay tuned. Thursday gives us a busy morning. Don't miss November's durable goods orders, as it could be a market mover: Total orders in October fell 0.6% but an uptick is expected given the ISM's improvement in October. Also look for jobless claims and the natural gas report. The market will close at 1:00 for the holiday but late-stayers will note the late-afternoon report of the Fed's balance sheet and money supply.

Best wishes to all for a delightful Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

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New Option Plays

Volume Disappearing Fast

by James Brown

Click here to email James Brown

Editor's Note:

The stock market didn't make much progress today. Granted there were some pockets of strength. The NASDAQ extended its gains. The metals and commodities and their related stocks rallied sharply. Yet overall we are either seeing a slow drift higher or a narrow drift sideways.

Tomorrow is going to be a half-day for the stock market. Volume is going to vanish as traders turn their focus toward families and holidays. It's possible that the low volume could exaggerate any stock movement on Thursday but I wouldn't want to initiate any new positions. Thus there are no new trades tonight. There will be no evening newsletter on Thursday (Christmas Eve). Our weekend newsletter will still be delivered as normal on Saturday.

In honor of the season I'm posting a copy of one of the most famous newspaper editorials ever written. Enjoy yourselves. Merry Christmas!

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

(the above was written by Francis Pharcellus Church in the year 1897 for "The Sun")

In Play Updates and Reviews

INFY & NILE hit our Targets

by James Brown

Click here to email James Brown

CALL Play Updates

EQUINIX Inc. - EQIX - close: 107.76 change: +0.70 stop: 99.75

EQIX rallied off its intraday lows but struggled with the $108 level. I am not suggesting new positions at this time. Our first target is $109.50. Our second target is $113.50. The plan was to use small position sizes to limit risk.

Entry  on  December 09 at $103.02
Change since picked:       + 4.74 
Earnings Date            02/10/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        501 thousand 
Listed on  December 09, 2009         

Infosys Tech. - INFY - close: 55.61 change: +1.16 stop: 51.95 *new*

Target achieved. INFY managed to hit $55.76 this afternoon. Our target to take profits was $55.75. The close over round-number resistance at $55.00 is bullish. I am raising our stop loss to $51.95. Our second and final target is $59.50. We will plan to exit ahead of the January 12th earnings report.


Entry  on  December 05 at $ 51.88 /gap down entry point
                           /originally listed at $52.46
Change since picked:       + 3.73
                            /1st target hit @ 55.75 (+7.4%)
Earnings Date            01/12/10 (confirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        1.4 million  
Listed on  December 05, 2009         

General Dynamics - GD - close: 68.20 change: +0.00 stop: 67.45

I'm this close to dropping GD as a bullish candidate. If you're feeling cautious here I would seriously consider an early exit. The only reason I'm keeping GD as a bullish candidate is that shares have not yet broken the longer-term trendline of higher lows. It's close though and could breakdown any moment. The recent relative weakness and short-term pattern of lower highs suggest the next move will be down. I repeat that readers will want to consider an early exit! I'm not suggesting new positions at this time.

Our first target to take profits in GD is $74.95. FYI: The Point & Figure chart is bullish with a $105 target.

Entry  on  December 14 at $ 70.66 (half position)
Change since picked:       - 2.46
Earnings Date            01/27/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        1.6 million  
Listed on  December 14, 2009         

Mettler Toledo - MTD - close: 105.69 change: -0.33 stop: 99.45

MTD hit $106.84 intraday and pared its gains. This almost looks like a short-term top. MTD is arguably short-term overbought so a pull back would be healthy. Look for support in the $102.50-100.00 zone. Our first target is $109.00.

Entry  on  December 19 at $102.66 (small positions) /gap down entry
Change since picked:       + 3.03
Earnings Date            02/04/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        106 thousand
Listed on  December 19, 2009         

Norfolk Southern - NSC - close: 53.82 change: +0.81 stop: 50.95 *new*

Good news! The DJUSRR railroad index has broken out through the top of its six-week trading range. This should signal a new leg higher. Shares of NSC also broke to new 2009 highs with a 1.5% gain. I would consider new bullish positions here but readers will want to consider a tighter stop loss. I am raising our stop loss to $50.95. You may want to raise your stop even further. Our first target is now $56.50. Our second and final target is $59.50. Our time frame is several weeks. FYI: The Point & Figure chart is bullish with a $65 target.

Picked on  November 21 at $ 51.84 (small positions)/gap higher entry
Change since picked:       + 1.98
Earnings Date            01/27/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        5.4 million  
Listed on  November 21, 2009         

NUCOR Corp. - NUE - close: 46.10 change: +0.76 stop: 41.75

Our new call play continued to rally. Unfortunately the stock gapped open higher at $45.85 this morning, which affected our entry point. The plan remains unchanged. Open small positions now with the expectation that we'll see a pull back toward $44.00, where we can choose to double down and increase our position size. More conservative traders may want to bump their stops closer to $44.00. Our multi-week target is $49.50. We will plan to exit ahead of the late January earnings report.

Entry  on  December 22 at $ 45.85 (1/2 position or less) /gap higher entry
Change since picked:       + 0.25
Earnings Date            01/28/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        4.5 million  
Listed on  December 22, 2009         

Precision Castparts - PCP - close: 113.17 change: -1.66 stop: 107.25

PCP ran into some profit taking with a 1.4% decline. The relative weakness is a bit surprising. We can look for short-term support in the $111.00-110.00 zone. PCP has already hit our first target at $112.45. Our second target is $118.75. The Point & Figure chart is bullish with a $131 target.

Picked on  December 01 at $107.35
Change since picked:       + 5.82
                            /1st target hit $112.45 (+4.7%)
Earnings Date            01/20/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        817 thousand 
Listed on  November 28, 2009         

Stifel Financial - SF - close: 58.34 change: +0.14 stop: 54.95

SF spiked to a new 2009 high this morning before paring its gains. I would still consider new bullish positions at this time. Our first target is $64.50. Our time frame is January expiration. The P&F chart is bullish and points to a $70 target.

Entry  on  December 22 at $ 58.05
Change since picked:       + 0.29
Earnings Date            02/11/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        207 thousand 
Listed on  December 16, 2009         

UnitedHealth Group - UNH - close: 31.62 change: -0.70 stop: 27.99

After two weeks of steady gains it looks like the healthcare stocks are starting to see some profit taking. UNH gave up 2.1% and really under performed its peers. That's okay. Shares were looking a little overbought. Broken resistance near $30.00 should be new support. I'd consider buying new call positions on a dip or bounce near $30.50-30.00. Our first target is $34.00. Our longer-term target is $36.00. Our time frame is several weeks. If you buy March calls you might want to think about holding over the late January earnings report.

Entry  on  December 10 at $ 30.31 
Change since picked:       + 1.31
Earnings Date            01/21/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        819 thousand 
Listed on  December 10, 2009         

United Tech. - UTX - close: 69.51 change: +0.16 stop: 67.45

It looks like shares of UTX are hibernating. The stock hasn't moved from its $69-70 trading range in days. You could argue that this is relative weakness with the S&P 500 flirting with new highs. More conservative traders may want to exit early or raise their stops!

I'm suggesting readers wait for a new rise over $70.25 to launch positions. More conservative traders may want to use a tighter stop loss. Our first target is $74.75. The Point & Figure chart is bullish with a $95.00 target.

Entry  on  December 15 at $ 70.25
Change since picked:       - 0.74
Earnings Date            01/21/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        4.0 million  
Listed on  December 12, 2009         

Valmont Industries - VMI - close: 81.39 change: -0.33 stop: 78.45

VMI is also drifting sideways as we approach Christmas. Look for support near $80.00. I hesitate to launch new positions. Our first target to take profits is at $84.90. Our second target is $88.75. FYI: The most recent data list short interest at 9% of the very small 20.1 million-share float.

Entry  on  December 10 at $ 81.00
Change since picked:       + 0.39
Earnings Date            02/10/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        238 thousand 
Listed on  December 05, 2009         

Vertex Pharma - VRTX - close: 42.65 change: -0.25 stop: 39.75

The rally in VRTX paused as well. Shares spent the session drifting sideways. Our target to exit is at $44.25. My time frame is several weeks.

Entry  on  December 03 at $ 40.25
Change since picked:       + 2.40
Earnings Date            02/09/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        3.2 million  
Listed on  November 23, 2009         

Whirlpool - WHR - close: 82.88 change: -0.77 stop: 75.95 *new*

It should be no surprise to see some profit taking after the recent rally in shares of WHR. A dip or bounce in the $81-80 zone could be used as a new entry point. I am adjusting our stop loss to $75.95. More cautious traders may want to bump theirs higher. WHR has already hit our first target at $84.75. Our second target is $89.00. FYI: The Point & Figure chart is bullish with a $103 target.

Entry  on  December 19 at $ 80.76 /gap higher entry
Change since picked:       + 2.12
                             /1st target hit $84.75 (+4.9%)
Earnings Date            02/08/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        1.6 million  
Listed on  December 19, 2009         

PUT Play Updates

*Currently we do not have any put play updates*

Strangle & Spread Play Updates

(What is a strangle? It's when a trader buys an out-of-the-money (OTM) call and an OTM put on the same stock. The strategy is neutral. You do not care what direction the stock moves as long as the move is big enough to make your investment profitable.)

Apple Inc. - AAPL - close: 202.10 change: +1.74 stop: n/a

AAPL continued to bounce, which helped the NASDAQ hit a new high for the year. Shares of AAPL gained 0.8%. There is no change from my prior comments. I am not suggesting new strangle positions at this time.

The options in the January strangle were January $220 calls (AJL-LV) and the January $180 puts (APV-XR). Our estimated cost is $5.60. We want to sell if either option hits $10.00 or more.

Picked on  November 30 at $199.91
Change since picked:       + 2.19
Earnings Date            01/21/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =       15.1 million  
Listed on  November 30, 2009         

United Parcel Service - UPS - close: 58.00 change: -0.58 stop: n/a

In spite of the strength in the transports shares of UPS refuse to move from their trading range. This is very bad news for our strangle trade. I'm not suggesting new strangle positions.

January Strangle
The options suggested for the January strangle were the January $60.00 calls (UPS-AL) and the January $55.00 puts (UPS-MK). Our estimated cost was $1.35. I would plan to sell if either option hit $3.50 or more.

Picked on  November 21 at $ 57.99 /gap open entry
Change since picked:       + 0.01 
Earnings Date            02/02/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        4.7 million  
Listed on  November 21, 2009         


Blue Nile Inc. - NILE - close: 64.06 change: +1.66 stop: 57.40

Target achieved! NILE has been very strong the last few days and shares rallied toward resistance near $65.00 but trimmed its gains by the closing bell. The intraday high was $64.92. Our target to exit was $64.90.


Entry  on  December 21 at $ 60.39
Change since picked:       + 4.51 <-- target hit @ 64.90 (+7.4%)
Earnings Date            02/18/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =        144 thousand 
Listed on  December 21, 2009         


Freeport McMoran - FCX - close: 80.93 change: +2.48 stop: 80.55

U.S. dollar weakness on Wednesday fueled gains for the commodities. Shares of FCX reacted with a 3.1% rally and a breakout past resistance near $80.00 and its 50-dma. The stock hit our stop loss at $80.55. We knew this was an aggressive trade, which is why we wanted to use small positions.


Entry  on  December 12 at $ 76.81 
Change since picked:       + 3.74 <-- stopped @ 80.55 (+4.8%)
Earnings Date            01/26/10 (unconfirmed)
Average Daily Volume =       12.6 million  
Listed on  December 12, 2009