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A Little Less Bearish

Following up on my intention from mid-week, I took off some of my index shorts on Friday.  I also covered my oil stock shorts and some of my tech one’s.  I’m keeping the airlines.  Because the market fell so far (I did not expect the S&P to get all the way back to the mid-2,800s!), I decided to cut my short exposure by more than I had anticipated.  I now hold less than half the index shorts that I did.  I took the first of some small longs – in very large cap names – Google, Abbott Labs and MasterCard.

Mostly, I’m less bearish because the market has come down a lot.  But a couple of other things are playing into my thinking as well.

For one, as the market continues to decline a coordinated effort from the central banks seems more likely.  While I’m not sure that a whole bunch of money is really going to solve anything, I’m inclined to think that the market will go up on such an intervention, at least for a while.

Second, there seems to be a path out of this mess and that is important.  The thing the market really hates is uncertainty.  And while uncertainty about the coronavirus still abounds, we aren’t flying completely blind here.

First, China appears to have provided everyone else with a template for how to get through this.  Cases in China seem to be declining (if you believe their statistics that is – in itself is a reason to be cautious).

Now, in North America we can’t be as draconian as the Chinese, but we can shut down schools, stop gatherings, and businesses can close for a period in areas where the virus takes hold.  The experience of China suggests that seems to work.

Additionally, there is a vaccine in development and maybe it isn’t as far away as it appeared a few weeks ago.  It might only be a few weeks from being developed, which could mean as little as 3-6 months until it is available.

You put these things together and you can see how globally, we could get through this in maybe 6 months. You can envision a path to the other side.

While that path is not good for the global economy, the stock market always looks past the immediate bad things and asks what happens next – and you can see how what happens next doesn’t necessarily have to be all dark and grim.

This may not be a path to immediate new highs for the market, but I also don’t know if it is a path to a full-on 1987 or 2008 style panic.   I wasn’t around for 1987 but I was for 2008 and the collapse didn’t happen until the credit markets actually seized up, at which point no one saw a path out of it.  There was a real fear that things just wouldn’t come back – that there was no path out.

Contrast that with the beginning of September 2008, which was like 3 weeks before the world went completely on tilt – the market was down less than 10% and holding up okay-ish.  Maybe if the Fed had bailed out Lehman (and everyone else subsequently), we wouldn’t have had 2008 at all?

My point is that the market doesn’t collapse on the possibility that something bad might happen.  It teeters on that.  It collapses once that possibility becomes inevitable and especially when it doesn’t see a way out of that bad event.

I just don’t know if that is what we have here.

So those are the positives that cause me to be a little more bullish, to take off some shorts, and to buy some Google (Google!  Me – buying Google – Hah!).

The negatives that keep me from really diving in here, apart from the obvious uncertainty about the virus itself, is that I’m a little wary about what happens to the global economy as parts of it potentially shut down for a period.

Once we are through to the other side of this, will it just bounce back?  I know that is the consensus.  I’ve read a ton of brokerage reports and they are all like – one quarter or two quarters of drop and then everything bounces back to normal.

The assumption implicit in that prediction is that the economy works like a machine.  You can turn it off and on and it effectively goes back to behaving the same as it was.

I’ve never been entirely convinced of that.  I’m more of the Jane Jacobs school of thought that the economy is like a complex ecosystem.  And ecosystems don’t behave mechanically.  They are less predictable.

I mean, again using 2008 as an analogy, we turned the economy off for a month (maybe two?) and it seems like it took years for it to completely bounce back.

This is different of course but I’m still a little concerned that while the virus will pass, the ripple effects on the economy won’t pass as quickly.  That after the initial exuberance of containment, the aftershock of having shut so much down for months will have a lasting impact on businesses.

But I don’t know, I’m really not sure about this.  It is different; it’s likely not going to shut things down in the same way that a credit crisis or even a business cycle shuts it down.  I’m just a little wary, and why I’m still positioning myself more out of the market than in.

The other thing I did, and I’m not really sure this was a good idea, is I bought back a portion of the gold stocks I had sold.  I bought some Gran Colombia and some Wesdome.

I don’t know if I should have done this.  Gold is so bizarre.  You just never know.  Also, consider the following:

  1. India and China make up the bulk of jewelry demand and the virus may make that take a hit – it already has to be hitting China and it seems inevitable that India gets hit with this virus at some point and I don’t see the same sort of containment strategies working there – it could be a real disaster in a place like India
  2. Gold stops doing well if things really deteriorate.  Everything is rosy in gold as long as everyone still believes that its all going to be ok when central banks step in.  We saw a bit of this on Friday.  I learned in 2008 that if the shit really hits the fan gold is going to tank with everything else for a while.  It will be the first thing to come back, but you’d be better off out until that liquidity crunch ends.  I don’t know if this virus panic gets to that point, maybe not, but it gives me pause.

On the other hand, I mean holy crap – Gran Colombia and Wesdome were down ~15% on the day when I bought them (!!) and gold is still well above where it was at even the beginning the year.  They are making a lot of money – Gran Colombia is trading at like less than 2x EBITDA and probably less than 4x free cash flow at these gold prices (I haven’t worked through the free cash flow numbers at $1,600 gold so don’t quote me on that, but its in that ballpark).

But it is gold, so expect the unexpected.  I might be backtracking on those purchases.  I’m staying nimble.  My underlying framework is that I don’t know much at all.


Continuing to Wait

I wrote a few weeks ago that I was sitting on the sidelines.  That continues to be (mostly) the case today.  It has not been without some pain however – the market went up for the first two weeks of February and I’ll be honest, it was getting very frustrating as it just didn’t make sense to me.  Fortunately I stuck to my resolve and stood mostly pat, watching stocks go up while my portfolio did a whole lot of nothing.

Now though, the tides have turned.  The market seems to be waking up to what this virus will mean for economic activity.  My portfolio has done well and is at a new high, up about 2% for the month, while the S&P has fallen 7-8%.

Though the market has fallen pretty far pretty fast, I’m still reluctant to do much other than make small trades here and there for a bounce.  I did take off some of my short positions – 20% of the index shorts (I think I will take off another 20% today or tomorrow as we can’t just keep going straight down) and roughly 1/2 of my airline and oil shorts.  I may regret reducing the oil and airline shorts if the market continues to fall given that they are obvious collateral damage of the virus spread.  I did take on a few small, big-cap tech shorts, like Apple and Skyworks when things seemed to be getting particularly silly.  But I’m wary of how oversold we are and wary of some sort of stimulus package that seems inevitable (there was a call for it in the WSJ this morning).

I did sell some stocks that had what I would call unappealing news.  When Smith-Micro came out and said that they had acquired a competing company that was a provider to T-Mobile I sold the stock, thinking that this probably meant that there would be no T-Mobile deal coming in the short run.  When Big Five Sports announced bad guidance for the first quarter (due to weather) I sold out of that stock as well, thinking that being a retail chain with poor guidance in the midst of this virus was probably not a good combination.

I also sold some stocks on good news – in this case mostly the gold ones.  It felt to me like gold was getting a little frothy earlier this week and so I have lightened up significantly on almost all of my gold positions – Gran Colombia, Wesdome and the like.  I’m also wary that there are headwinds here for gold – first that India and China make up the bulk of jewelry demand, which is going to get hit by the virus and B. that if the shit really hits the fan gold doesn’t tend to do that well.  The only gold stock I didn’t sell was Roxgold, which is simply because the damn stock won’t go up!  I also added a small position in a new miner – Teranga Gold.

The other thing that I have done is take positions in some bond indexes.  This seems like another way to play the virus and what is likely to be the inevitable slowdown that will materialize.  Unlike shorts, I’m not sure that bonds will drop as the central banks inevitably respond, so it might be a bit safer avenue.  I bought TLT, ZAG and XSB.

Two stocks that I have decided to keep positions in are Evolent Health and Digital Turbine.  Both had good quarters in my opinion.  With Digital Turbine I really like the acquisition of Mobile Posse and insiders have been buying stock since the release of the quarters results.  Evolent’s revenue guidance for 2020 was very good, and while their EBITDA guidance was light, that would seem to be because of the ramp in costs from the growth.  The stock is still held hostage to Passport though, which should resolve in the new couple of months.

Finally, Schmitt Industries had some (maybe?) good news when they announced the delay of their de-listing transaction as the evaluated a new opportunity.  I’m hopeful but guarded about what the opportunity might be.

Looking ahead, I’m of the mind that when I do get back into the market I will look for larger companies to buy.  It just seems like every time there is a big sell-off, its always the big companies hat recover fastest.  There are a lot of big-cap names that are beginning to get whacked but good.  So I’m trying to figure out some simple ideas here that will work once the turn begins.

Mostly Out of the Market for Now

Having so much uncertainty about the coronavirus in combination with a market that is at all-time highs, I made the decision Wednesday to get (mostly) out for now.  Over the last 2 days I sold down nearly all my positions.  I’ll wait this one out until I feel a bit more clear about where things are headed.

I don’t have a clue whether the coronavirus scare is over or whether it is only in a lull brought on by the strict measures being enforced in China.  It seems to me that if 10+ cities are shutdown, we should expect to see the number of cases slow.  It is also possible that the number of cases have simply stopped being reported.  From what I have read of flu’s, they don’t really just disappear so it seems at least possible that this is not one and done.

But I’m also being influenced by the market.  When the market was down 70 points on Friday I was buying a few stocks, but after the move this week, in the wake of what I don’t really see as a resolved situation, it just doesn’t make sense to me.  Yes, I know – stimulus.  Whatevs.

As I’ve said on a few occasions, because I don’t run money for anyone, and therefore have no investors to answer to and no shareholder letter to write with returns to justify, I just have no reason to take risk when I don’t feel comfortable doing so.  The market is at an all-time high.  The risks seem to be plenty.  So I’ll just wait this out for a month or so and see what happens.  If I miss a 5% move, big deal.  I would think that most of the euphoria of a virus-nonevent has been already priced in over the last 4 days (but who really knows).

I still have a smaller position in Smith-Micro, a smaller position in Sonoma Pharmaceuticals, my position in Nuvectra and Schmitt Industries (which announce a voluntarily delisting – I mean come on!) and a couple other tiny 1% positions.  I have two new positions that I have kept for now, Rada and Sharps Compliance, neither of which is particularly tied to this virus and Sharps should be positively correlated to it.  I also continue to own my gold stocks and I did add a bit to Wesdome this week when it got into the low $8’s.

My positions remain hedged with index shorts.  Though not in the practice portfolio where I cannot short, in my actual portfolio I’m still short some shale names, a couple of airlines and a couple cannabis names.  All very small as I really hate losing anything material on shorts.