Wednesday, December 21, 2011

RIMM Hangs Up on Amazon, Microsoft, and Nokia

It is difficult to find a stock that is more out of favor than Research in Motion (RIMM), the company best known for the BlackBerry smartphone. RIMM is led by a pair of co-CEOs, a highly unusual arrangement for any publicly-traded company and one that has proven extremely ineffective in recent periods. This dysfunctional structure has resulted in one misstep after another. In particular, the company has delayed the launch of key new models and new software a number of times. RIMM also had a disastrous launch of its tablet computer dubbed the PlayBook. Although some experts claim the PlayBook is technologically superior to other tablets, consumers complain that there are too few apps.

It turns out that at least a few companies thought RIMM was worth buying. While it isn't clear if any formal offers were made,, Microsoft, and Nokia were all recently mentioned in press reports as possible suitors. In any case, it seems that RIMM's co-CEOs weren't keen to be bought out. They apparently refused to entertain any offers. Instead, they continue to believe that they can orchestrate a turnaround by themselves.

Whether they will succeed or not remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that RIMM is no Lehman Brothers. Although the company is losing market share in the U.S., it is still a leader in several key international markets. In fact, the company's subscriber base actually surged 35% year-over-year during the most recently completed quarter. The board of directors will release a report in January that is widely expected to recommend some drastic changes.

Management has been begging investors to exercise a little more patience. Instead, investors have been selling the stock. Today's news caused the stock to rally. The fact that any company sees value in RIMM is giving investors some assurance--at least for now. In any case, it is much too early to write RIMM's obituary. Despite reduced earnings expectations ($4.10 per share for fiscal 2012), with absolutely no debt on the books, well over a $1 billion in cash, and the real possibility of a management shake up, RIMM is worth a second look.

Disclosure - Vahan Janjigian holds RIMM in portfolios he manages.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Unemployment vs. Participation: Which Shows a Truer Picture?

Equity futures were up strongly this morning thanks to reports that the International Monetary Fund would get involved to help resolve the European debt crisis. Futures remained strong when the U.S. employment report came out showing a big drop in the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate, however, is misleading and by early afternoon, stocks gave up much of their gains as investors looked deeper into the numbers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm payrolls rose by 120,000 in November. Nonfarm private payrolls rose by 140,000. Both figures were close to the consensus estimates and they show that the economy is creating jobs, albeit at an anemic pace. The big surprise, however, was the dramatic decline in the unemployment rate. It fell to 8.6%, much better than the consensus estimate of 9.0%. While this grabbed the headlines, things beneath the surface don't look as rosy.

The unemployment rate is defined as the number of unemployed (but looking for work) divided by the civilian labor force. As a result, the unemployment rate can improve simply because fewer people are looking for jobs. This can happen when they get discouraged and drop out of the labor force.

A better measure of the state of employment is the participation rate. This rate divides the civilian labor force by the civilian noninstitutional population. The denominator includes everyone aged 16 and over who is not institutionalized, meaning that they are not in the military, jail, mental institution, or home for the aged. Everyone else is considered capable of working. Of course, some people have legitimate reasons not to work. Perhaps they are still in school, or they prefer to stay at home with the kids, or they have retired. As a result, the participation rate will always be below 100%; however, in a healthy economy, it should be somewhere near 70%.

The bad news is that the participation rate fell from 64.2% in October to 64.0% in November. In fact, as shown in the figure below, this rate has been declining steadily for quite some time.

I don't want to throw cold water on today's jobs report. The nonfarm payroll figures are somewhat encouraging and at least they show that the economy is moving in the right direction. However, don't get fooled by the lower unemployment rate. It may make some people in the White House feel a little better, but the economy won't be out of the woods until the participation rate improves significantly.

I had a discussion in late October about this with Karen Gibbs in Chicago. Interestingly, MoneyShow decided to release the video today in conjunction with the employment report. As you'll see in the video, I stress the importance of focusing on the the participation rate.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Retail Investors Staying Away From Stocks

Bank of America recently conducted a survey of about 1,000 "mass affluent" investors. The results are found in its Merrill Edge Report: November 2011.

The mass affluent are defined as people who have $50,000 to $250,000 in investable assets. These people are not rich. In fact, they are solidly in the middle class. They are extremely important because there are so many of them and they form the backbone of the investing public. An estimated 28 million households fall into this category. That's about a quarter of total U.S. households.

Some of the findings are encouraging. For example, about a quarter of those surveyed said their financial situation is better than it was a year ago because they are spending less, paying bills on time, and sticking with a budget. Other results, however, are worrisome. More than a quarter of the respondents said they are dipping into savings to meet short-term needs and they are neglecting their long-term goals. Almost half think they will retire later than they had hoped just a year ago, and more than 40% have become more conservative with their investments.

Interestingly, these people are taking less risk with their investments at a time when the Federal Reserve is trying to encourage risk taking. These people would rather hold cash, which pays little or no interest, than take the risk of losing money in the stock market. I discussed some of this with Tracy Byrnes today on Fox Business.