The Dark Side of Crowd Sourcing

(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

Crowds can certainly be a means for achieving good ends. Ask people in Tahrir Square or those in Kiev, although some may disagree and see only the dark side of crowds.

The power of crowds has made Wikipedia an increasingly legitimate asset as the crowd has been tamed and made to adhere to standards. The burden of creating a useful utility is borne by so many people that no one individual is critical and no one individual can harm the foundation.

In the world of financing “crowd sourcing,” the mechanism of pooling funds from a large group of people to help achieve an objective is getting increasingly popular for charitable and commercial ventures and received great fanfare this week as legendary musician Neil Young sought funding for his project of creating a high fidelity system to play and listen to digital music that restores all of the sounds and nuances of the original recordings as intended by the artists.

Neil Young has been adamant over the years about his feelings regarding the quality of the most prevalent file format used for digital recordings and many believe that the iTunes franchise of Apple (AAPL) is most at risk for an assault against that format and to introduction of a new audio player. Perhaps the sentiment attributed to Young that the songs on an iPhone “sound like crap,” and that even Steve Jobs wasn’t satisfied with the sound of music on the iPod, add to that feeling of an impending assault on the existing Apple eco-system..

As an artist proud of his art, and together with a growing collection of other well known artists who feel similarly about the preservation of the quality of their art, there is certainly a case to be made for providing a medium that faithfully recreates the experience. Of course, doing so requires capital and investment and is faced with long odds when the competitor is Apple.

While there are different models of crowd sourcing, the most commonly used and the one that Mr. Young is utilizing is that promoted by Kickstarter. It is one that offers rewards for contributions toward reaching a specified financial objective. Rewards are based upon the level of donation, which is referred to as a “pledge,” which is returned if at the end of the campaign the financial objective is not met.

As an example, a $5 pledge to this campaign entitles the donor to “LOVE + THANKS” and a mention on the website. Greater amounts may result in “swag,” including T-shirts, signed posters and even a discounted price on the music player. At the highest level, $5,000, donors receive a “VIP Dinner and Listening Party with Neil Young.”

No doubt that all of these reward have some value, but what they belie is greed.

First, Kickstarter offers a great opportunity for those without ready access to capital and a wonderful means to generate financial support for what may be great projects, products and ideas that would otherwise never see the light of day. Crowd sourcing may be the mechanism by which yet another great American success story is launched without the potential burden of over-bearing and demanding investors worried about their capital investments.

The alternative, the more traditional route is to access capital markets or venture capital and accept the potential liabilities that may come along with those alternatives. Whether that includes the re-payment of business loans or the granting of equity, the price is very tangible, although perhaps necessary and even an indispensable part of the equation.

The novice inventor has little chance to access either of these traditional routes of funding, having neither their own capital nor networks to get a foot in the door. That is where Kickstarter comes in and offers an opportunity to open the doors with very few strings attached other than a token gift of appreciation. That opportunity can make all of the difference for so many, but seems inherently wrong when the ones asking for pledges have infinite avenues available to them and are more likely to find the path to success to be a paved road.

And then there’s Neil Young.

While I’m not privy to his ability to personally finance this laudable project it may be reasonable to believe that through his own resources or through his personal network of contacts he would be able to find the resources necessary to bring this project fully into being. There is, however, scant information on the Kickstarter site as to the earlier backers of this effort.

In the event that there is a gap in funding for additional components of the strategy to bring the enhanced music player to market, there is clearly a downside to going back to original investors. That downside is the need to cede further equity to attract funds. However, the non-traditional route offered by Kickstarter entails none of that need to reduce personal equity. Instead yoou keep it all and pass the costs down to those who get no share in any potential future success.

In this case the objective of the campaign was to raise $800,000 which seems like a small amount, although there’s no indication of just how much has already been invested in the project. That $800,000 threshold was easily surpassed in just the second day of the campaign. In fact, it was more than doubled with more than a month remaining to collect even more.

Like the duo in “The Producers” the campaign can keep collecting as much as it wants because all that needs to be done is to print more T-shirts or sign more posters. As opposed to 100% of the pie the universe of T-shirts is conceivably unlimited and carries no future obligation to any of the donors.

Donors, many of whom, like me, probably already have a large collection of rock and roll T-shirts just love the idea of being associated in perpetuity with one of their favorite rock stars. In that case of the 8300 such items to be given away 5741 potential items still remain with an additional donation value in return of over $2.2 million. Of course, there are also those unlimited donor levels of $5 and $50, because “LOVE AND THANKS” is in eternal supply.

On the other hand, the cynic in me wonders how $800,000, in a project of this size could possibly have made any difference, particularly when access to real investors shouldn’t be a limiting factor. One has to wonder whether the campaign is simply part of an awareness and publicity campaign, as it has certainly already achieved quite a bit of attention in addition to money and helps to create a potential audience for the planned new hardware, made a bit more enticing with donor discounts.

No matter what your opinion this campaign will be an example of the power of crowd sourcing and will serve as a model for others eager to protect their own interests and perhaps drain from the pool of donations available to others less well connected to capital sources.

Too bad, but at least for the artist, if successful, it means hearing his work in the manner in which it was intended. For the donor who received a discount on the player it’s more likely a situation of wondering when he was going to hear the difference and how many washes that T-shirt can endure.

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics and the Employment SItuation Report


(A much less geeky version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

On Wednesday morning the monthly Automatic Data Processing (ADP) Employment Report was released.

Ever since they started doing so there’s been lots of disagreement over how accurately ADP’s numbers parallel or will reflect the government’s Non-farm Payroll statistics that are contained in the Employment Situation Report that comes out two days later. Regardless of the validity of the ADP Report it still has the capability of moving markets.

After last month’s disappointing official numbers the ADP number was pretty much on target for expectations but the market showed some mild disappointment in the pre-open trading, however, it got over that disappointment very quickly.

At this point we’ll have to wait until Friday to see whether there is concordance between the two reports and to see how the market reacts to the official numbers and revisions.

I recently collected some historical data looking at the relationship, if any, between the Employment Situation Report and market performance. Watching the release of that most recent government report and seeing the market react to very disappointing numbers by pushing the market higher had me realizing that it seemed as if the market always went higher with the announcement of those official numbers.

Who knew that in the comfort of my retirement I would actually once again find myself dusting off a statistics program and running t-tests? That is the sort of thing that nightmares are made of, rather than dreams.

Contrary to my supposed realization, beginning with January 2011 there were no associations between the reporting of data, regardless of its content and how the market did, neither in the week leading up to the report nor the week following. Neither did the day before the report release have any predictive value.

That is unless you looked at the past 18 months.

During that time period there was a statistically significant likelihood that on the week preceding the report and the day preceding the report that the market would move higher. The following week simply performed no differently whether preceded by an Employment Situation Report or not.

For those interested in such things, the random chance that the market went higher on the day of the Employment Situation Report release was less than 4% and less than 2% when considering the prior week.

While that seemed compelling, as with all statistics it helps to look beyond the numbers and try to have an understanding of possible confounders or environmental factors that may have played a role.

Perhaps coincidentally the past 18 months reflected the beginning of the third and final phase of Quantitative Easing.

Because of that possibility I wasn’t terribly excited about being further long the market in anticipation of an additional Employment Situation Report fueled run higher, considering that there appears to also be an association between the announcement of the taper and the market’s fortunes. Certainly the past month causes one to rethink a bullish thesis and the environment may now be substantively different with the taper in place.

Additionally, In hindsight, starting the week with a 325 point loss seemed to indicate that playing the market for a weekly advance in anticipation of Friday’s report wouldn’t have been a very good idea.

However, about half of the weekly gains seen in Employment Situation Weeks came on the day of the report, suggesting that there might be some advantage to adding long positions prior to Thursday’s close, even in the face of a market teetring and looking for direction and even in the face of losses earlier in the week.

Based upon the pattern of the past 18 months, while I generally don’t consider index ETF trading, I may look at the possibility of purchasing some SPDR S&P 500 Trust (SPY) shares with the anticipation of closing the position at the end of Friday’s trading by selling slightly out of the money call options on the position, as premiums are beginning to reflect increasing volatility and could enhance any report related advance in the index.

While statistics may have a wonderful ability to confirm whatever thesis one wishes to expound the relative benign reaction to a benign ADP report gives me reason to suspect that optimism may be warranted from 3:59 PM Thursday until 4 PM on Friday.




Taking Solace in an Earnings Challenged Coach



(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

It has been very easy to be disparaging of Coach (COH) these days.

In 2013, including dividends, an investment in Coach shares witnessed a 3.1% ROI, as compared to 29.6% for the S&P 500, exclusive of dividends.

Perhaps the root cause of the quantitative disappointment has been the near universal acknowledgement that Coach was no longer a very interesting place to shop, as Michael Kors (KORS) had displaced it in the hearts and more importantly, the literal and figurative pocketbooks of shoppers.

The first hint of trouble presented itself in August 2011 when shares plunged 6.5% after announcing earnings, following years of running higher, that took only a short rest in June 2010. While shares went bacl to their old ways of climbing higher under CEO and Chairman Lew Frankfort that climb came to a decided halt shortly after the Michael Kors IPO.

COH ChartIn 2013 Coach knew only large price moves following earnings reports, following the pattern that began in 2012. The difference, however, was that in 2013 all but one of those large price moves was higher, with -16.1%, +9.8%, -7.8% and -7.5% earnings related responses greeting increasingly wary and frustrated shareholders.

Coach reports its second quarter earnings on January 22, 2014 prior to the market’s open. The option market is implying a nearly 10% move upon that event, which comes on the heels of a 6.3% decline in shares in the past week.

For most, that may mean that this would be a good time to steer clear of Coach shares or even consider exiting existing psoitions, especially as the retail sector has been struggling to get consumers to part with their discretionary cash.

In the past year, while Coach has been a non-entity, I have owned it and sold calls on shares, or sold puts on eight occasions. Included in those trades were three sales of put options on the day prior to earnings and one purchase of shares and sale of calls on the day following disappointing earnings.

COH data by YCharts

During that time Coach has fulfilled two of my cardinal requirements in that it has been a model of mediocrity, but still has something to offer and will do more than simply make a pretense of maintaing a business model.

My goal with Coach, as with all positions upon which I use a covered option strategy is to make a small rate of return and in a short time frame. My ideal trade is one that returns a 1% profit in a week’s time and surpasses the performance of the S&P 500 during the time period of the trade.

During 2013, the cumulative return from the eight Coach trades was 25.4% and the average holding period was 28 days. The average trade had an ROI of 3.2%, which when adjusted for the average holding period was less than the 1% goal, consistent with the lower premiums obtained in a low volatiity period. However, during the same time periods for each trade, the results surpassed the S&P 500 performance for the same time periods by 18.5%.

Coach 2013 Performance - Option to Profit

While I don’t place too much credibility on annualizing performance, the annualized performace of Coach, utilizing the serial covered option strategy, with some trades timed to coincide with earnings was 41.5%, while the annualized S&P 500 return was 34.7%. A longer period of observation also yielded similar favorable results

In the case of potential trades seeking to reach those objectives when earnings are to be released, my preference is to see whether there is an option premium available for the sale of puts that is at the extreme end of the implied volatility range or beyond. For Coach, the implied volatility suggests expectations of a price move in the $47.50 to $57.50 range, based on Friday’s closing price of $52.56.

The $47 January 24, 2014 put premium satisfies the quest for a 1% return and is at a strike price slightly outside of the implied volatility range. Essentially, the risk-reward proposition is a 1% return in the event of anything less than a 10% drop in share price. Anything more than a 10% price drop creates additional possibilities to generate returns, but extends the period of the trade.

As always, the sale of puts should only be undertaken if you’re prepared to take ownsership of shares at the strike price specified. While I wouldn’t shy away from share ownership in the event of a larger than anticipated price drop, I would be inclined to consider rolling over the put sale into a new expiration date and ideally at a lower strike price, if possible, repeating that process until expiration finally arrives.

While not everyone appreciates leather, everyone can appreciate investment profits, even if they come at the expense of corporate losses and a fall from grace.

Abercrombie and Fitch Sets Itself Up for More Disappointment



(A version of this article appears on

With low expectations shareholders of Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) were rewarded during Thursday’s after hours trading as it was announced that the company experienced higher than expected sales for the fourth quarter to date.

Embattled CEO and Chairman Michael Jeffries needed a boost after calls for his resignation and having been the recent recipient of Herb Greenberg’s “Worst CEO of 2013 Award.” The 15% surge, if maintained into trading to end the week will leave shares only about 30% below their 52 week high.

Perhaps lost in the translation are the nuances contained in the report that sent shares soaring that may set Abercrombie and Fitch share holders up for more disappointment in the future. Manufactured good news has a way of doing that once reality hits and it is difficult to interpret today’s press release as anything other than a very favorable spin on a company and a personality much in need of spin.

For the period in question, which ended on January 4, 2014, the company actually reported decreased total sales, but found some solace in the fact that its direct to consumer sales were at its highest level of total sales than ever before. Of course, as the total pie shrinks a component may look comparatively better by simply not shrinking as much. The details of the direct to consumer activities was lacking. Its growth, was by all accounts, relative.

While sales were reported to be better than expected they represented a 4% decrease in the United States and a 10% decrease in international sales. Improved guidance was based on the nine week period ending before much of the east coast freeze that is reported to have stalled mall traffic. It’s unclear how nature’s elements will project forward as the first quarter becomes the object of focus. Additionally, reliance on”ongoing cost reduction efforts” is rarely a strategy for growth. Jeffries’ one year contract extension may require something more substantive than smoke and mirrors to further extend the engagement. Marketing the company as “We’re Not Sears” is not likely to provide a prolonged bounce, much as today’s press release may be suspect.

But I don’t really care about any of that, because Abercrombie and Fitch, for all of its dysfunction and sometimes embaarrassing behavior of its CEO, has been one of my favorite stocks since May 2012. During that period of time I’ve owned shares on 18 occasions.

Abercrombie and Fitch hasn’t been a holding for the faint of heart during that period, nor for anyone abiding by a buy and hold strategy.

As a punctuated buy and hold investor, my sales have been dictated by the call contracts I routinely sold on holdings, almost always utilizing in the money or very near the money strike levels.

Abercrombie and Fitch

Perhaps coincidentally the average cost of those shares has been $38.64, which was just slightly higher than the after hours trading peak after its more than $5 climb. During the period in question shares were initiated at $35.15 and soared as high as $55.23 almost a year to the date of that opening position. A perfect market timer could have sold shares at the peak ans achieved a 59% return with dividends.

Not only am I not a perfect market timer, but I’m also not very patient and would have had a hard time holding onto shares for a full year. Instead my shares were held for reasonably short periods of time, other than one lot currently open for 4 months. During that time the cumulative return has been 56% while the shares themselves have appreciated less than 11% from the date of first purchase.

With some of my shares set to expire on Friday January 10, 2014 amd some others the very next week, there is a chance that I will be left with no shares, thanks to a well timed press release.

However, I have no doubts that Abercrombie and Fitch will find a way to undo investor goodwill and will see its price come down. When it does, I will be there, once again, eager to pick up the wounded shares of of a company that would be embarrassed to have me as a customer.

When to Take Tax Losses

(A version of this article appeared in

Each year the ritual begins just days before New Years. Even in the best of years there are bound to be some losers. Fortunately, whatever faults there may be in the tax code, the ability to attenuate investment mistakes isn’t one of them.

Since I actively sell covered options and generate taxable premiums the thought of offsetting gains is appealing, but before jumping at the opportunity a grasp of history may be helpful.
In this case looking at the strategic tax losses taken in 2012 I’m struck by one thing. Four out of the five such sales saw shares appreciate more than the S&P 500′s gain for 2013. Not only did they gain more than 29% from their sales price, but they also gained more than 29 % from their purchase prices.
Proponents of the “Dogs of the Dow Theory” would readily understand the phenomenon, as perhaps should serial covered option writers who repeatedly write options on the same stocks as their prices regularly go up and down, sometimes even to extremes, yet so often recover.
Given the choice between taking a tax credit or a stock loss or paying more taxes because of greater gains, I would take the latter every time. However, there is a preponderance of thought that losses should be taken if they reach the 10% level. For those believing in rules, this is a useful rule, if consistently practiced.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that proceeds from the sale of losers will be recycled into the shares of winners. Sometimes losers simply give way to other losers, as even well devised ideas don’t alwaysbear fruit. While hindsight often has me wishing I had cut my losses, the real battle is deciding whether to follow your humble or arrogant side.

The arrogant side believes it can re-invest loser proceeds and recover losses. The humble side wonders how someone so ill-advised and having made the original investment, then sat frozenly while shares plunged, could now suddenly be deft enough to select a winner, instead of inviting ruination once again.
It’s difficult to not take the humble side’s argument. Logic trumps hope.
The decision process as to whether to take tax losses begins with understanding your tax liability, which is related to your marginal tax rate. If in the highest Federal tax bracket, the short term rate on capital gains is 39.6%, although the rate varies from 10 to 39.6%.

Next comes a look at the probabilities of various outcomes and their respective benefits.
There is a 100% probability that the loss will decrease your tax liability, if you didn’t violate the Wash Sales Rules. It’s hard to beat those odds, but if you do buy and sell the same stock repeatedly, as I often do, the 30 day window on either side of your proposed trade can scuttle your strategy.
The next step takes some calculation.

As an example, I’m going to look at Petrobras (PBR) shares that I bought on January 7, 2013 at $20.05 and currently trading at $13.48. An advanced degree is mathematics is unnecessary to recognize that represents more than a 10% decline and would violate investing rules sometimes attributed to famed financier Bernard Baruch.
The potential tax benefit is based upon your tax rate and whether the holding is a short term or long term. As a short term holding the Petrobras position is entitled up to a 39.6% credit against capital gains, meaning that credit can be worth up to $2.60 per share.

While that is an objective calculation, the next step is entirely subjective and focuses on your assessment of the probability that Petrobras shares will add $2.60 to its current share price. How likely is it that shares will gain 19.3%?  While there may be be company specific challenges, as well as broader economic challenges to consider, one may be justified in wondering whether Petrobras will be this year’s Hewlett Packard (HPQ), which was a strategic tax loss that I mistakenly took last year and is up 99% YTD.

If you believe that such lightning may strike twice in a lifetime you may decide to roll the dice and surrender the certainty of a short term tax credit.

if your educated gamble is right, even at the new higher price yomay still qualify for a tax loss, however, you’ll find yourself looking at a much ower credit, if the short term loss becomes a long term loss. As a movie character once asked, “are you feeling lucky?” If you can generate some option premiums along the way you can make your own luck, but whatever the outcome, it is deferred to 2015, which may entail further opportunity costs.

Then again, just look at your losers from last year. Unlikely as it may have seemed, recovery wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Bottom line? Ask your tax advisor, but do so soon.