Schaeffer's Trading Floor Blog

Earnings on Deck: Merck & Co., Inc., Level 3 Communications, Inc., and United States Steel Corporation

Taking a closer look at MRK, LVLT, and X ahead of their earnings results

by 7/28/2014 11:53 AM
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This week's slate of quarterly earnings reports picks up the pace tomorrow when global health care concern Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK), integrated communications specialist Level 3 Communications, Inc. (NYSE:LVLT), and industrial metals name United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X) unveil their results. Here's a quick look at this trio of names as earnings approach.

  • Over the past eight quarters, MRK has exceeded analysts' bottom-line estimates seven times; however, in the subsequent session, the stock has averaged a loss of 0.2% (which widens to 0.5% going out one week). Overall, the shares have added roughly 16% in 2014, but since late May, have been churning between $57.50 and $59.50. Against this backdrop, the equity has garnered six "strong buy" ratings from analysts, compared to six tepid "holds," while the consensus 12-month price target of $60.94 stands at a slim 5% premium to Merck & Co., Inc.'s current perch at $57.99. For tomorrow morning's second-quarter results, analysts are calling for a per-share profit of 81 cents -- a 3-cent decline over the company's year-ago results.

  • LVLT will also report second-quarter earnings tomorrow morning, and despite falling short of consensus profit estimates in four of the previous seven quarters, the security has gone on to average a single-session post-earnings pop of 3.1% -- which includes its 16% rally this past April. This post-earnings price action only highlights the stock's withstanding technical tenacity, with the shares more than doubling in value year-over-year to trade at $45.17. Another well-received earnings report could help the stock extend this upward momentum by sparking a short-covering rally. At Level 3 Communications, Inc.'s average daily trading volume, it would take 8.5 sessions to buy back all of the security's shorted shares.

  • Wall Street has forecast a loss of 29 cents per share for X's second quarter, and if past is prologue, the company could be due for another earnings beat. Over the past eight quarters, X has only fallen short of analysts' bottom-line estimates one time, and, on average, the stock is sitting 3.1% higher one week after reporting. Ahead of tomorrow evening's report, call buying has picked up the pace, per X's 10-day International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX) call/put volume ratio of 2.33, which ranks in the 82nd annual percentile. With more than one-quarter of the equity's float sold short, though, a portion of this activity could be a result of shorts hedging against any future upside. In today's session, in fact, United States Steel Corporation is bucking the broad-market trend lower, up 0.5% at last check to trade at $27.86.

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Analyst Downgrades: Cisco Systems, Inc., Outerwall Inc, and Whole Foods Market, Inc.

Analysts downwardly revised their ratings on CSCO, OUTR, and WFM

by 7/28/2014 9:04 AM
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Analysts are weighing in today on networking giant Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ:CSCO), Redbox parent Outerwall Inc (NASDAQ:OUTR), and organic grocer Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM). Here's a quick roundup of today's bearish brokerage notes.

  • CSCO hasn't done much over the past year, up less than 2%. Accordingly, Pacific Crest cut its rating on the stock to "sector perform" from "outperform." Additional downgrades are possible, too, as Cisco Systems, Inc. has received "buy" or better opinions from over 60% of covering analysts. On Friday, the shares closed at $25.97, as they continue to battle overhead resistance at the $26 level.

  • OUTR was hit with a price-target cut to $64 from $76 at B. Riley, with the firm backing its "neutral" rating. The kiosk operator has struggled in 2014, shedding 20.2% to trade at $53.66. In fact, during the past two months, the stock has underperformed the broader S&P 500 Index (SPX) by 26.2 percentage points. It's no surprise, therefore, that bearish betting has picked up among short sellers. During the last two reporting periods, short interest on Outerwall Inc increased 25.3%, and now makes up nearly half of the stock's available float. At the security's average daily trading volume, it would take nearly two weeks to buy back these shorted shares.

  • Finally, WFM saw its price target cut by $10 to $45 at Oppenheimer (though the firm maintained its "outperform" rating on the grocery chain). This downward revision is to be expected, seeing as how the shares have shed 36.2% year-to-date to rest at $36.88. Meanwhile, over at the International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX), sentiment is tilted in a decidedly negative direction. Whole Foods Market, Inc.'s 10-day put/call volume ratio across this trio of exchanges checks in at 1.45 -- or just 8 percentage points shy of a 12-month bearish peak.

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U.S. stock futures are set to open lower this morning, with traders eyeing a fresh round of sanctions levied against Russia by members of the European Union. In company news, today's stocks to watch include retailer Family Dollar Stores, Inc. (NYSE:FDO), fast-food giant McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD), streaming entertainment provider Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX), and egg producer Cal-Maine Foods Inc (NASDAQ:CALM).

  • Family Dollar Stores, Inc. (NYSE:FDO) is nearly 25% higher in pre-market trading, after sector peer Dollar Tree, Inc. (NASDAQ:DLTR) agreed to acquire the chain for roughly $8.5 billion, or $74.50 per share. Activist investor Carl Icahn, who owns 9.4% of FDO, had been pushing for the discount retailer to sell itself. (Reuters)

  • Due to extensive food recalls amid a scandal at its Shanghai processing facility, McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) is facing shortages at its Chinese locations. Over the weekend, at least one mainland MCD outpost was able to offer customers only side items, desserts, and beverages. (CNNMoney)

  • Speculation suggests that Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) could acquire the streaming rights to Seinfeld when the classic sitcom's broadcast and cable syndication deals expire in a couple of months. Rumors began to circulate after Jerry Seinfeld indicated that "conversations are presently taking place" during a Reddit AMA last week. (Bloomberg Businessweek)

  • Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) is reportedly close to a $30 million deal to acquire the talk-radio app Swell. The rumored acquisition could be an effort to replace Apple's own app for streaming talk content, which has been panned by Apple Store reviewers. (Re/code)

  • Virgin America has filed for a U.S. initial public offering (IPO), with Barclays and Deutsche Bank Securities acting as lead underwriters. Virgin currently flies to 22 cities across the U.S. and Mexico, and landed top honors two years in a row in the annual Airline Quality Rating study. (Reuters, via CNBC)

  • On the earnings front, Cal-Maine Foods Inc (NASDAQ:CALM) and Tyson Foods, Inc. (NYSE:TSN) both reported their latest quarterly results. (MarketWatch; Bloomberg Businessweek)

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The Impact of High-Frequency Trading on Volatility

Is HFT the reason intraday volatility is compressing?

by 7/28/2014 9:01 AM
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As we've noted often recently, small-cap volatility has hit record levels versus big-cap volatility this year. "Record" requires a little perspective, as we can only go back to 2007 on Russell 2000 Index (RUT) volatility, but still, it's very noteworthy.

Perhaps we can blame (or thank) high-frequency trading (HFT). This, from Credit Suisse via The Wall Street Journal:

New data out from Credit Suisse points to some of the salutary effects of high-frequency trading. Researchers at the Swiss bank's New York offices posit that HFT activity has helped inoculate large-caps from the effects of macroeconomic market stresses.

Their analysis, in a note released Wednesday, shows price volatility is much more subdued in the stocks of companies with large market capitalizations -- whose deeper liquidity HFT generally prefers -- than it is in their small-cap peers.

Looking at stocks that moved at least 1% within one minute, researchers found spikes in small-caps at moments of instability, like the 2011 U.S. debt downgrade. But in large-caps, there wasn't a blip.

As Credit Suisse put it: "The numbers have been declining consistently every year post-crisis, as HFT has become a larger part of the market. Not so for smallcaps."

It brings up the eternal question about coincidence vs. causation. Is HFT really causing intraday volatility to compress, or are we just selectively viewing a time period where volatility is declining anyway and adding an arbitrary threshold on top of it?

Credit Suisse uses that 1% within one-minute criteria as a proxy for volatility. And that's fine. But, perhaps, in a generally low-volatility environment, that simply knocks out a host of big caps. Remember, smaller caps are just naturally more volatile than big caps, anyway. Not to mention they, on average, will have much lower absolute-dollar price tags on them. That might matter in a big way in a study like the one mentioned above it's much more likely for a relatively lightly traded $10 stock to blip a dime in a heartbeat than it is for a heavily traded $100 stock to blip $1. And again, that's especially true in a generally low-volatility backdrop.

What if they reduced the criteria to 0.5%, would that change how their graphs look? I don't know for sure, but I suspect it would.

I don't believe their study itself is flawed in any particular way, I just believe they reach an unprovable conclusion. It needs more corroborating evidence. HFT would reduce volatility if it added liquidity to the marketplace. It certainly adds to volume, but liquidity is not synonymous with volume.

Here's a pretty long read from Nanex highlighting a few milliseconds of trading in Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F). Long story short, it's your classic "Trader tries to lift offer, buy order gets rerouted, offers cancel and/or gets lifted before trader fills order" story that happens over and over again in big-cap names. It's a pretty typical event in a world of algorithms, and it's really tough to make the logical case that this has served to increase liquidity and reduce volatility.

Bottom line is, there's lots of moving parts that go into market volatility. HFT certainly has an impact on volatility, but there's really no single way to isolate that impact short of having a "control" market somewhere that's identical in every other way except for the algos. Big stocks blipping 1% relatively infrequently over a time period when HFT has grown does not in any way prove that HFT keeps stocks from blipping 1%.

Disclaimer: Mr. Warner's opinions expressed above do not necessarily represent the views of Schaeffer's Investment Research.

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Analyst Upgrades: Reynolds American, Inc., Time Warner Inc, and Zillow Inc

Analysts upwardly revised their ratings on RAI, TWX, and Z

by 7/28/2014 8:58 AM
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Analysts are weighing in today on cigarette manufacturer Reynolds American, Inc. (NYSE:RAI), media and entertainment firm Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX), and real estate website Zillow Inc (NASDAQ:Z). Here's a quick roundup of today's bullish brokerage notes.

  • In the wake of RAI's agreement to buy rival Lorillard Inc. (NYSE:LO) a couple of weeks ago, the cigarette maker was raised to "top pick" from "outperform" at RBC this morning. It's no wonder, with the shares tacking on 13.7% year-to-date to trade at $56.86, and resting atop a potential layer of support at their early March highs. On the International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX), however, Reynolds American, Inc. has racked up a 10-day put/call volume ratio of 0.98 -- ranking in the bearishly skewed 78th percentile of its annual range. Should the stock continue to outperform, or should the company report stronger-than-expected earnings tomorrow morning, a capitulation among these bearish bettors could result in tailwinds.

  • TWX gapped higher recently on a proposed buyout from Twenty-First Century Fox Inc (NASDAQ:FOXA), and hasn't looked back. At last check, the shares have advanced more than 27% year-to-date, and currently rest at $84.99. On the sentiment front, Morgan Stanley upped its price target on TWX to $95 from $76, and reaffirmed its "overweight" rating. This is more of the same for the stock, which has received 15 "buy" or better opinions, compared to seven "holds" and not a single "sell" recommendation. In other news, Bloomberg reported over the weekend that FOXA is open to giving Time Warner Inc shareholders seats on the board, should the companies merge.

  • Finally, Z, which closed Friday at $158.86, has nearly doubled in value this year. What's more, the equity has outperformed the broader S&P 500 Index (SPX) by 41.3 percentage points during the last three months, but was halted in pre-market trading amid just-confirmed plans to buy Trulia Inc (NYSE:TRLA) for $3.5 billion in stock. The real estate name received a pair of price-target hikes earlier at Benchmark (to $178) and Susquehanna (to $200). Still, nearly one-third of Zillow Inc's float is sold short, which would take more than a week to cover, at the stock's average daily trading volume. In other words, the shares could be on the verge of a short-covering rally.

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