Muddy Waters: Dump This Insurance Stock

Manulife option bears are circling on comments from Muddy's Carson Block

Oct 4, 2018 at 2:09 PM
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The shares of Manulife Financial Corporation (NYSE:MFC) are plumbing new lows today, after Muddy Waters said it's short the insurance issue. Muddy's Carson Block warned that Manulife could face billions in losses from a trial between its life insurance subsidiary and a hedge fund. Manulife has since reacted to the report, calling it a "short seller's attempt to profit at the expense of our shareholders." Nevertheless, MFC stock is down 3.6% to trade at $17.41, and put options volume is already at an annual high.

Manulife shares have surrendered more than 21% since touching a multi-year high north of $22 in mid-January, and today fell as low as $17.22 -- territory not charted since mid-2017. Perhaps the stock's retreat may have been predicted by a recent run-up to a pair of moving averages.

Specifically, MFC stock recently came within one standard deviation of both its 160-day and 200-day moving averages, after a lengthy stretch below these trendlines. After the previous signal with its 160-day moving average, MFC went on to lose 4.48% in the subsequent week, per data from Schaeffer's Senior Quantitative Analyst Rocky White. After two previous signals with its 200-day moving average, the equity was down an average of 7.32% a month later, and lower both times.

MFC stock chart oct 4

In the options arena, Manulife has already seen 20,000 puts cross the tape today -- 34 times the norm. That's compared to its previous annual high of just over 3,100 puts traded on Sept. 17. Call volume is also running hot -- though not nearly as hot as the appetite for puts -- with 1,800 contracts traded -- 17 times the norm, and on pace to topple the Nov. 17 annual high of 1,846 contracts. Further, the 30-day implied volatility (IV) skew of 25.7% is in the 91st percentile of its annual range, suggesting MFC calls have rarely been cheaper than their put counterparts.

Most active is the October 17 put, where more than 11,900 contracts have changed hands. It looks like a healthy portion of the puts are being bought to open, suggesting the traders expect Manulife shares to retreat beneath the $17 level by the close on Friday, Oct. 19, when front-month options expire.

However, today's affinity for short-term puts merely echoes the recent trend. While MFC options volume tends to run light on an absolute basis, the stock's Schaeffer's put/call open interest ratio (SOIR) stands at 5.03, indicating more than five times as many open puts as calls among options expiring within three months. Further, the SOIR sits at the top of its annual range, suggesting near-term traders haven't been more put-heavy in the past year.

On the other hand, analysts have remain devoted to struggling MFC. The security currently sports seven "buy" or better ratings, compared to two "holds" and not a single "sell." Should the stock extend its quest for new lows, a round of analyst downgrades could exacerbate selling pressure on the shares.



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