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US Employment: It's always Darkest Before Dawn

One important component to my call this morning to be buying/covering stocks in the SP500 range of 885-900 (right where we are now), is to consider the chart below within the construct of expectations.

Before we look forward, let’s take a deep breath, and a step back… and look at where this chart has come from on this very January day of 2008 – when all smelled like a rose to those who couldn’t afford to foresee smelling anything else.

Today the fear associated with unemployment trends in this country are backward looking – the amount of emails I get about “Depressions” is one sure fire proxy of what that level of doubt investors have in their mind right now that this unemployment trend could reverse.

Looking forward, all I need to see is a probability that the delta in this chart turns to the negative (i.e. unemployment accelerates at a lesser rate). As you can see, there has been a steep ramp in expectations catching up with reality in this country. The trailing economic data is telling you why we just printed the 2nd worse year for the US stock market since 1871. The New Reality is that was 2008’s “news” and that the USA has a 7.2% unemployment rate.

While the pundit patrol talks about “Great Depressions”, after the big moves have been made (unemployment during that Depression was 23%, and if we were going there, I would be scared of my own shadow too), consider this question: could I be emailing you an unemployment chart on this same day, next year, reviewing that this was both a peak in terms of quarterly sequential acceleration and the US manic media’s pessimism embedded therein?

Keith R. McCullough
CEO & Chief Investment Officer


Buying Adversity, At A Price

Buying Adversity, At A Price - asset allocation010908

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
~ Abraham Lincoln

When reflecting, Barack Obama often cites Lincoln… and for that… we should all be thankful. Having a President who actually pauses before something comes out of his mouth, who is both proactive and patient with his words, is a welcomed leadership change that we can invest in.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or neither, I don’t think your political affiliation will do a darn thing for you in trying to earn a return in The New Reality. What you will need is the ability to stand tall in the face of the market’s adversity and ask yourself the tough questions when it’s the toughest time to ask them.

From the very beginning, Obama has been doubted. So don’t doubt for one second that expectations for him to over-deliver versus the levity of his rhetoric will continue to face adversity into his Presidential Inauguration. Being long Obama’s principles has been THE winning “Trade” that has trumped consensus politics for the last nine weeks. Since November, every time this man’s character has been tested by the US stock market’s Crisis In Credibility, the fact of the matter is that the SP500 has made higher lows. Credibility starts with this man’s word potentially meaning something.

Yesterday’s market action was no different. The SP500’s early morning lows were laced with the fear and adversity associated with a consensus that Obama can’t fix this country’s problems today. Now that everyone who didn’t have it in themselves to ask THE question as to where unemployment and savings rates in this country could go at this time last year considers themselves professional “Great Depression” analysts, once again that groupthink is facing the tremendous adversity associated with the madness of crowds. They are myopically anchored on yesterday. They are structurally blind in seeing the potential of the opportunities associated with tomorrow.

This is mainly why I have been hammering home the patience point – be patient on price. Yes, after the SP500 ran up to 941 at 3PM on Tuesday it was overbought. Yes, when the SP500 was on its intraday lows of 897 at 10AM yesterday it was oversold. Buying into adversity is all about expectations, prices, and timing. If you don’t have a process to monitor these critical factors surgically, use ours.

The math here is what it is. At 941 SP500, we had already run a truck through the short selling “ideas” of the US Consumer “Depressionistas.” Since the November 20th panic lows of 752, we had ourselves +25.1% price “re-flation” to sell into. At yesterday’s intraday low, you had a 48 hour sale of -4.7% to buy into. Everything has a time and price.

While the manic media is painting the apocalypse ahead of this morning’s widely anticipated unemployment number, please consider timing. On Monday, that unemployment print will be a historical event, and the short sellers of higher lows will be forced to consider Tuesday January 20th, 2009. Will the SP500 breakout to 1000? No, that’s not my call. My call is that it could very well make higher highs than 941 and test 954. The math implied at the 954 line is +5% from yesterday’s close and +27% from the November lows – that’s math that investors chasing relative or absolute performance cannot afford to miss.

Does managing this US market like a doctor would her patient in the operating room require precision “Trading”? You bet your Madoff it does – the “long term” investor calls it whatever they call it – I call it risk management.

The best risk managers in this business, and in life for that matter, always consider “improbable” events, and manage their decision making in consideration of what no one thinks can happen. This morning, everyone and their brother thinks they’ll see the 7% unemployment rate that we called for 6, 9, and 12 months ago – what if it’s 8%? – I don’t think it will be, but what if it is? What if its 6%?

The point here is that you better have a plan for both 8% and 6%, because the crowd expects 7%. My plan is simply this: No matter what that number is, if the SP500 holds my buying range of 885-900, and the VIX (Volatility Index) keeps its head under $50.21, I COVER, and I BUY.

Yesterday I saw those prices, and went shopping, taking my asset allocation model in US Equities back up to 18% versus the 9% position I had sold that exposure down to by the time my Wednesday morning Early Note went to print at the Transparency/Accountability press.

I have started to buy my position in Commodities back. As usual, I started with a conservative 3% position in Gold – call me boring; I’m cool with that. After markets get squeezed like this one has, at the top of intermediate market moves I am an incremental buyer of low beta and a short seller of high beta.

The highest beta “Trade” you can make into any US market weakness this morning is short-selling weakness ahead of Obama’s January 20th date. In the face of that adversity, provided that my prices hold, I’ll be buying everything that my old friends in the bear camp have on the offer.

Have a great weekend,
KM

Buying Adversity, At A Price - etfs010909



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SONC - Management seems disconnected from reality

SONC’s 1Q09 sales results came in worse than what the company guided to when it preannounced on December 15th. With the quarter having already been complete at that time, I guess we should not be surprised about how aggressive the company’s initial FY09 guidance (provided on September 23) is proving. Back in September, SONC issued its FY09 outlook, which included the expectation for 12%-14% EPS growth. Half of this growth was expected to come from refranchising gains as the company is undergoing a refranchising program to reduce its partner ownership to 12%-14% from about 20% over the next few years with the remainder of the growth coming from operations. By the time the company reported its fiscal 4Q08 results on October 17, this guidance was already called into question. SONC stated that the 5%-7% EPS growth from operations assumed 155-165 franchise openings in FY09 but that based on the turmoil in the credit markets, the timing of franchise development was less certain. Although management shed some doubt on its EPS guidance on that 4Q earnings call, it maintained its confidence in its 12%-14% goal, saying “if we felt like it made more sense to pull back and say we need to give you more conservative guidance, we would do that.”

Hindsight is 20/20, but based on yesterday’s fiscal 1Q09 earnings results (down 46% YOY) and management’s admitting that it cannot even say whether it expects to have positive earnings growth in FY09 (from prior expectation of up 12%-14%), the company should have pulled back its guidance last quarter. Consensus had already picked up on the company’s lack of confidence in its numbers and was only forecasting 2% EPS growth in FY09 prior to yesterday’s earnings results. And based on yesterday’s results, no earnings growth in FY09 is a real possibility.

To be clear, management stated, “We provided our initial 2009 earnings expectation in mid-September based on business and economic conditions present at that time. Subsequent to providing this outlook we have seen credit markets tighten significantly and consumer spending and confidence decline markedly. Our first quarter results reflect these changes and challenges and we anticipate subsequent quarters throughout fiscal 2009 will be effected as well. While there have been some positive developments such as indications of abating commodity cost increases and moderating energy prices, significant uncertainty remains. Given the unpredictable nature of the current environment we will not be providing updated expectations for fiscal 2009 at this time. We believe our near-term success will be based upon our ability to drive positive same store sales and that is where the majority of our efforts are currently focused.”

Relative to the half of the initial 12%-14% earnings guidance that was expected to come from refranchising gains, of the 17 partner drive-ins refranchised fiscal year-to-date, no material gains have been realized. Management refuted that it is selling these restaurants for less than they had previously expected, but rather, that the lack of gains stems from the fact that the company has thus far sold newer stores, which have a higher book value. Although this may be true, SONC continues to maintain that it will achieve a gain when it sells its older stores. This is not an easy market in which to sell restaurants at a premium and although the Sonic brand is not comparable to Applebee’s from a growth perspective, we have seen DIN continue to lower the expected proceeds from its sales.

Regarding the more important 5%-7% earnings growth that was expected to come from operations, SONC’s top-line results have started out the year significantly below expectations. System sales came in down 3.6% with partner drive-ins continuing to be a drag on the system with comparable sales down 6.6%. These lower sales, particularly at partner drive-ins, combined with higher commodity costs caused restaurant level margins to decline 430 bps YOY. Also hurting the company’s expected full-year results is the fact that the company said due to credit market conditions, it will fall short of its franchise development goal of 155-165 units (as management feared following its fiscal 4Q08 earnings).

Management is relying on lower YOY increases in commodity costs for the remainder of the year and its new value menu initiative to drive improved results going forward. In a change of strategy, the company added 11 value items to its menu with national cable support on December 29 in response to all of the QSR discounting already going on and the company’s research that over the past several months, QSR growth has come primarily from value offerings. In the 10 days since this national launch, the company has seen its comparable sales turn positive at both its partner and franchise drive-ins. Although this is a significant uptick from the fiscal 1Q same-store sales results, this is only 10 days so I am not yet convinced that the worst is over. I do think the value initiatives will have a positive impact on traffic but I am concerned about the margin impact as margins have already come down so much in the last 3 quarters alone. Management stated that in the last 10 days, the value menu has actually resulted in both positive traffic and higher average check and that it is not expecting to see a huge hit to either its margins or its average check. I will believe it when I see it. The company’s Happy Hour discounting initiative increased traffic while bringing down average check, and I would expect the same from this newly implemented discounting program.



Charting The Sharks: XLY (Consumer Discretionary)

As the market was selling off earlier this morning, we bought back our position in XLY. While we have been riding out our “MEGA” squeeze call for some time now in Consumer Discretionary (Mortgages Rates, Employment, Gas, and Assets), that doesn’t mean we need to own it at tops (we sold ours on 1/2/09).

The chart below outlines our the two quant levels that matter here: 1. The “Shark” line (the line where the shorts get eaten if closing above) at $21.22 and 2. The Breakout line (the line where the momentum community will chase it higher) at $22.41.

When Howard Penney and I break down our US “Sector” level risk management levels for our top tier macro clients, the XLY continues to shine as the group to be long for market up moves – the XLF (Financials) remains the weakest.

Keith R. McCullough
CEO & Chief Investment Officer

ANNA’S DEALS

For the last week or so Anna Massion has been emailing me the offers she’s received from various Las Vegas casino hotels. Anna is one of our gaming/lodging gurus so of course, she has spent some time in Vegas over the last several years. It’s been years since either one of us have seen deals like this. I’ve included a few below:

• The Venetian: $119 per night with over $150 in resort credits – unless LVS is getting a cut of the airline fare, they can’t be making money on this deal. As Anna said, “it’s like they pay me to stay there”.
• Encore: $140 per night – not good for a new luxury hotel
• Wynn Las Vegas: $129 per night – can you say cannibalization?
• Four Seasons: $280 for one night plus a $150 credit – this isn’t coming out of the Four Seasons cut
• Mandalay Bay: $79.99 per night – sounds much better than $80

These are just the most recent promotions. What’s interesting is the progression over the past 3 months. Each promotion is more and more generous. Wait a few months and they’ll pay your mortgage too.

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