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I talked yesterday about the Fed.  As I said, I think we’ll find that the Fed will shift gears again to stay behind the curve on inflation, to let the economy run a little hot.  They met today and it was a non-event. They said nothing to build momentum on their rate hike from December.

The news of the day has been Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) earnings.  People over the past couple of years have been calling for the decline in Apple.  They’ve said it’s topped.  They can’t innovate in the post-Steve Jobs era.  The iPhone was magic. But reproducing magic isn’t easy.  Once you put a computer in everyone’s pocket, there’s not much more they can do to it with it. These are all of the quips about Apple’s peak.  They may be right.  But Apple’s peak, at least as a stock, is greatly exaggerated.

They reported a huge positive surprise on earnings yesterday after the close.  The stock was up 6% on the day.  But even before that, I suspect it has become a much loved stock in the past two months in the “smart money” investor community.

We should see in the coming weeks, as big investors disclose their positioning for the end of Q4, Apple will have returned to a lot of portfolios again.  Warren Buffett, an investor that has made his fortune buying when others are selling, built a big stake at the lows of the year last year.  And it’s a perfect Buffett stock.

It’s incredibly cheap compared to the market.

The stock still trades at 15x earnings.  Much cheaper than the market.  Apple trades at 13x next year’s projected earnings.  The S&P 500 trades at 16.5x.  What about Apple’s monster cash position?  Apple has even more cash now — a record $246 billion. If we excluded the cash from the valuation, Apple market cap goes down from $675 billion to $429 billion.  That would equate to Apple trading at closer to 9x earnings. Though not an “apples to apples” that valuation would group Apple with the likes of these S&P 500 components that trade around 9 times earnings, like:  Dow Chemical, Prudential Financial, Bed Bath & Beyond, a Norwegian chemical company (LBY), and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. It’s safe to say no one is debating whether or not Hewlett Packard is at the pinnacle of its business. Yet, if we strip out the cash in Apple, AAPL shares are trading closer to an HPE valuation.

Add to that, Apple now has a fresh catalyst coming in, Trump policies. The new President Trump is incentivizing Apple (and others) to bring offshore cash hoards back home with a flat 10% tax.  And Apple makes money – a lot of it.  A cut in the corporate tax rate will be a boon for earnings.  Two years ago, Carl Icahn argued that Apple should use (a lot more of) their cash to buyback shares – and, with that, valued the stock at double its current levels.

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December 5, 2016, 4:00pm EST

On Friday, we looked at five key charts that showed the technical breakout in stocks, interest rates, the dollar and crude oil.

All of these longer term charts argue for much higher levels to come. Remember, the big event remaining for the year is the December 14th Fed meeting. A rate hike won’t move the needle. It’s well expected at this stage.  But the projections on the path of interest rates that they will release, following the meeting, will be important.  As I said Friday, “as long as Yellen and company don’t panic, overestimate the inflation outlook and telegraph a more aggressive rate path next year, the year should end on a very positive note.”

On that note, today we had a number of Fed members out chattering about rates and where things are headed.  Did they start building expectations for a more aggressive rate path in 2017, because of the Trump effect?  Or, did they stick to the new strategy of promoting a view that underestimates the outlook for the economy and, therefore, the rate path (a strategy that was suggested by former Fed Chair Bernanke)?

The former is what Bernanke criticized the Fed as doing late last year, which he argued was an impediment to growth, as people took the cue and started positioning for a rate environment that would choke off the recovery.  The latter is what he suggested they should move to (and have moved to), sending an ultra accommodative signal, and a willingness to be behind the curve on inflation — letting the economy run hot for a while (i.e. they won’t impede the progress of recovery by tightening money).

So how did the Fed speakers today weigh in, relative to this positioning?

First, it should be said that Bernanke also recently criticized the Fed for the cacophony of chatter from Fed members between meetings. He said it was confusing and disruptive to the overall Fed communications.
So we had three speakers today.  New York Fed President William Dudley spoke in New York, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard spoke in Phoenix, and Chicago Fed President Charles Evans speaks in Chicago. Did they have a game plan today to promote a more consistent message, or was it a more of the disruptive noise we’ve heard in the past?

Fortunately, they were on message.  Only Dudley and Bullard are voting members.  Both had comments today that spanned from cautious to outright dovish.  Dudley, the Vice Chair, wasn’t taking a proactive view on the impact of fiscal stimulus — he promoted a wait and see view, while keeping the tone cautionary.  Bullard, a Fed member that is often swaying with the wind, said he envisioned ONE rate hike through 2019. That would mean, one in December, and done until 2019.  That’s an amazing statement, and one that completely (and purposely) ignores any influence of what may come from the new pro-growth policies.

This is all good news for stocks and the momentum in markets. The Fed seems to be disciplined in its strategy to stay out of the way of the positive momentum that has developed.  And that only helps their cause.  With that, if today’s chatter is a guide, we should see a very modest view in the economic projections that will come on December 14th. That should keep the stock market on track for a strong close into the end of the year.

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Yesterday, SandRidge Energy was yet another energy company to file for bankruptcy this year.  Many hear bankruptcy news and think of failed companies.  But in plenty of cases, it’s more about opportunism than it is about desperate last acts.

Before we talk about the SandRidge story, we want to give some bigger picture context.

As we discussed a few months ago, the oil price bust, while many thought would be a positive for the economy, because it puts a few bucks in the pockets of consumers, has actually been a huge net negative, because it has brought the energy industry to its knees.

If oil stayed at $26, the shale industry in the America would be done. All of the associated businesses (transportation, logistics, refining, housing, marketing, etc.) – done.   Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost already, and probably millions would have followed.  Guess who lends money to the energy sector?  Banks. The financial system would once again have been in widespread crisis.

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Oil producing countries like Venezuela and Russia would have defaulted.  When a biggie like Russia goes, it has systemic ramifications.  That event would have likely pulled the leg out from under the teetering European debt crisis chair.  From there, Greece would have gone, and Italy and Spain would have probably defaulted.  The European Monetary Union would have then finally succumbed to the unmanageable weight of the crisis.

To sum up, cheap oil would have been far worse than the sub-prime crisis.  And this time, central banks and governments would have had no ammunition to fight it.

But, central banks stepped in to remove the “cheap oil” risk.  The Bank of Japan intervened in the currency markets, and oil bottomed that day.  China followed by ramping up bank lending.  And Chinese institutions have been big buyers of commodities since.  Then the ECB rolled out bigger and bolder QE.  And the Fed removed two projected rate hikes from the table.  All of this coordinated to directly or indirectly put a floor under oil.  Today, oil is up 85% from levels of just three months ago.

So this begs the question:  Why is an energy company like SandRidge, a company that has been surviving through the decline in oil prices, cutting production/cutting jobs, now filing bankruptcy?  This is AFTER oil has bounced 85% and oil supply has just swung from a surplus to a deficit.  And some of the best oil traders in the world are projecting oil prices back around $80 by the end of the year.  Why would they throw in the towel now and not in February?

Back in February, SandRidge management missed a debt payment, opting to exercise a 30-day grace period.  It was at that stage that the ultimate negotiation should have come with debt holders.  Option 1): Restructure debt and perhaps dilute current shareholders by offering debt holders common shares.  That gives the company time to ride out the storm of the oil price bust.  And it gives all stakeholders a chance to see much better days.  Option 2): Close the doors and liquidate assets, and creditors get cents on the dollar.

Instead, SandRidge management and directors negotiated more runway so that they could get to Option 3): the homerun lottery ticket.

In this option, oil prices recover and the company can begin producing profitably again, and brighter days are ahead.  But if they rush to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, while the business fundamentals remain depressed, they can win big.  By swapping new stock for debt, the company gets freed of the noose of debt, and the debt holders exchange a piece of paper that was once worth pennies on the dollar, for common stock in a super-charged debt-free company.

That sounds like a win-win.  The company continues to operate as normal. Management and the board keep their jobs (and likely their golden parachutes).  And former debt holders can make a lot of money.

Who pays the price?  Shareholders (the owners).  Old shareholders of SandRidge stock have no say in the collusion between SandRidge leadership and creditors.  So the owners of the company have their interests effectively stolen by a backroom deal and given to debt holders.  And within the bankruptcy laws of Chapter 11, shareholders have no leverage.  But who are some of the biggest and most effected shareholders?  Employees.

SandRidge has over 1,000 employees.  Let’s assume that, like many publicly traded companies, employees of SandRidge have been incentivized to buy company stock as part of their 401k plan (common practice).  They have already seen their stock go from $80 to pennies.  But now, as an insult to injury, they will continue working to enrich new shareholders while their board of directors have chosen to wipe out their interests.

And sadly, the common stock of companies like SandRidge (which was one of the most shorted stocks on the NYSE) are often shorted heavily by those that own the debt, in efforts to drive the company into Chapter 11, so that they can orchestrate precisely what’s happening today.   The stock price gets cheap, then delisted from a major exchange, then credit ratings get downgraded, then banks cut credit lines, and voila, the company find itself in a liquidity crunch and turns to restructurings.

A huge factor in this “homerun option” for the board and creditors is for the company to continue operating as normal.  If employees in this Chapter 11 situation would strike, maybe shareholders could have a seat at the negotiating table when these “pre-arranged” reorganization deals are cut. Still, that’s the leverage they hold to derail such a deal.

Consider this: In the depths of the real estate bust, billionaire activist investor Bill Ackman stepped in and bought beaten down shares of General Growth Properties, a company in bankruptcy because it couldn’t access credit. The company had strong assets and strong cash flow (as does SandRidge), but was dependent on a functioning credit market, which was broken at the time. As the largest shareholder, he battled in the board room for the shareholder.  He helped management access liquidity and he convinced all stake holders that keeping equity holders intact would result in the biggest outcome for everyone.  He was right, and when the credit markets recovered, GGP shares went from 20 cents to over $20 a share.

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