The European Sucker Play; US Stock Bargains; Apple

The most important real near term news coming out of Europe will be the ECB rate decision tomorrow. Trichet is bidding adieu at the end of October and this is his last opportunity to reverse the prior rate hike. Does he head to Hotel du Cap admitting a mistake or stick to his guns and allow Mario Draghi to cut, although he has previously said it isn’t necessary. Perhaps the economic releases this morning may spur the correct decision, in conjunction with recent declines in commodity prices. Eurozone services PMI fell to 48.8 from 51.5 according to Markit survey, first month since August 2009 below 50. In other releases, Germany was sub 50 as well, France barely above 50, Italy and Spain continue below 50 at very low levels of 45 but they are already in recession. My guess is that France and Germany experience contractions in economic growth as well.

More importantly, does the troika come up with a major bail out prior to Trichet leaving and before Draghi takes over. Not sure how many EU members want an Italian telling them they have to pony up vast sums to save Italy. Fox guarding the chicken coop? Not quite but this will ratchet up the opposition or lengthen the time to cure if Trichet doesn’t act first.

The Financial Times had the story that wasn’t a story. The following 2 lines squeezed the shorts, lit a fire under those with light exposure and gave us all something to talk about.

“There is an increasingly shared view that we need a concerted, co-ordinated approach in Europe while many of the elements are done in the member states,” Olli Rehn, European commissioner for economic affairs, told the Financial Times. “There is a sense of urgency among ministers and we need to move on.”

“Capital positions of European banks must be reinforced to provide additional safety margins and thus reduce uncertainty,” Mr Rehn said. “This should be regarded as an integral part of the EU’s comprehensive strategy to restore confidence and overcome the crisis.…”

Rehn’s statement was nothing more than an attempt to put a temporary halt to the market crisis, an admirable goal, but hopefully there is ultimately more substance behind it. With the public division in the EU about solutions, I fear any resolution will be a long time in coming. Even the ESFS is flawed with Italy and Spain committing to guarantees of 79 billion Euros and 52 billion Euros, respectively. And, of course, Greece has agreed to be on the hook for 12 billion. I feel better now.

So the market basically did a hosanna that it has dawned on the EU finance ministers that they have developed a sense of urgency and will act together. Truth is we don’t know that they will act together but ultimately there has to be a plan. Unfortunately, from where I sit, the plan won’t be good for anyone, particularly the banks. We need a flush of the credit markets with tremendous pain being visited on the private sector because the political will for government to bail out all troubled banks and PIIGS does not exist. The result would be to wipe out the equity of a number of French banks as we are seeing with Dexia, which was originally bailed out in 2008 by France and Belgium. Now here they go again. Public shareholders have twice suffered significant losses. Dexia is also a good example of contagion as the municipalities in the US that do business with Dexia will likely see their borrowing costs increase as a result. And this is a minor case of contagion; it will get worse (Plus the 2008 similarities continue with good bank/bad bank solutions that don’t work.)

My bet is that Greece defaults in a “controlled” manner (not sure that exists) with limited alimony payments from the EU as a going away gift. At the same time, Italian and Spanish debt issues are ring fenced, the French banks recapitalized after taking significant write downs which almost wipes out equity holders with new shares or debt being backstopped by Germany and France as the main players. France loses their AAA, which is past its sell-by date anyway. We will also see massive liquidity injected into the European financial system causing a further decline in the Euro.

I’m waiting for this event to increase my exposure. With the slowing in China, Europe and the U.S., I’m highly confident that I can get a better entry point and keep more hair from falling out.

AAPL – still a cheap stock and the issues are well discounted in the stock price. I’m not going to beat up on Street research – well yes I am. The Street clearly has no idea what is going on with the company. If they can’t get major product launches correct, how are they doing the more difficult task of forecasting. It took me a few days to get a number I was looking for which is what percentage of ipads sold are wifi only. I’m going with the only answer that I got which is 65 – 70%. This is interesting because much was made of the fact that the new Amazon product is only wifi. Well, at a $300 difference for a product with a great brand name and very good functionality, if I didn’t own an ipad, I would seriously consider the Kindle Fire. I know that the ipad has 425,000 apps and the Fire doesn’t, but frankly, I ran out of patience after putting the first 150,000 apps on my screen. My issue with AAPL is margins. With strong competitors like Amazon and Google (android) at lower price points, is yesterday’s pricing of the iphone 4 and 4S a harbinger of lower margins and more competition? Apple has never been one to price to competitors’ levels but shouldn’t hat have to change? Tim Cook noted that 92% of the Fortune 500 are testing ipads. The opportunities in the enterprise space are interesting but keep in mind that most likely this is demand push by Apple, a common sales technique which I am glad to see them employ. I’m sure there is reverse inquiry as well. I would also guess that corporate procurement execs are more concerned with costs in a challenging economic environment and agnostic as to which quality brand they purchase. The dominant corporate usage is also likely wifi since it will be on premises as ipads are not a good substitute for laptops. Nonetheless this is a great revenue opportunity particularly if it scales into other Apple products.

Finally, on the US. We’re still without a plan and the economic numbers continue to look punk, today’s non-mfg ISM the latest example. Freight stocks are moving higher despite yesterday’s IATA airfreight numbers remaining below seasonal trends indicating a slow economy. Asia and the US showed particularly poor.

Even though the market is oversold and will have bear market rallies, I remain on the sidelines for the most part but do like a few stocks.

Wellpoint’s valuation seems compelling at less than 9X 2011 EPS. Company guidance is in a tight range either side of $7.00. They just added $5 billion to their buyback, an astonishing 21% of the company. Management said it will be completed over several years but they just bought back $1.5 billion since announcing a $1.6 billion program in February. That was about 5%. Plus I’m getting an okay yield of 1.6%.

I also like KO. Not huge growth but very dependable, the risk to earnings from currency being discounted by recent downgrades from the Street. At a 12 P/E and 3% yield it provides good, lower beta market exposure. If market explodes higher, neither WLP or KO will lead the pack but I will participate in the upside with limited downside.

QCOM remains a core holding. Tim Cook is an engineer and over saw procurement so he’s definitely on board with QCOM as the relationship, started in earnest this year, has taken root on his watch. They own CDMA and are embedded in android as well as ipad and iphone. QCOM ahs also been very friendly to shareholders, often returning capital.

HPQ is also inexpensive, even with a haircut (all the rage in financial circles these days) to earnings. My primary concern management, including the BOD. Still wish Meg didn’t speak about making the quarter. Would rather have had her reset bar lower.

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