Homegrown Terrorists Spook the Stock Market

By: Charles Payne

The negative, and at times scary news seems to be coming hitting the stock market from all corners of our world. Just as the headlines from the geopolitical realm let up, the glare of terrorism raises its ugly head again. This time with a twist that was as tart and hard-hitting as any lemon or lime mix. The country’s enemies are now recruiting US-born operatives and that makes the likelihood of a successful strike in the nation much more likely creating a cloud over American life and over the stock market.

Somewhere down the line, some major company will report fantastic earnings and guidance and at the same time all the economic data will paint a picture of a healthy nation and, at that point, the Dirty Bomb may seep back to the crevices of our minds that houses the Dirty Bird (my apologies to Falcons fans for bringing that up), and the movie "Dirty Dancing". Until then, it will always be a convenient reason to sell stocks or explain a sell off. In addition to a healthier economy, more closure in the war on terror would also mitigate the concerns of the Dirty Bomb. That may not happen until Iraq is invaded and the likes of Saddam and Osama are brought to justice. Yet, as long as the market is off in part to worries like these, it will create that much more of a rebound once the dust is settled.

As unsettlingly as the "Dirty Bomb" scare is, the dirty actions that continue to rain on the market from the nations wealthiest people. Say it ain’t so Martha! In the biggest stroke of luck since Hillary made one hundred grand in a single year from a one thousand dollar investment, Martha Stewart says she sold her shares in Imclone not from a tip but because she was a disciplined investor. Of course, she also got a call from the IMCL CEO a day before the FDA issued news that sawed the value of IMCL in half, and coincidentally she sold her position on the same day. If she isn’t telling the truth, then, it boggles the mind. This is a petty crime for a billionaire. Sort of like Dennis Kozlowski trying to beat the taxman on a million dollars.

It really is amazing and so hard to quantify as to the impact it is having on the investing public. Americans will root for the bad guy at times (some will even go to work for the bad guys even if the caper is to destroy America) but they have never rooted for unbridled greed. During a week in which the mega-rich corporate CEO took another kidney punch, the "Dapper Don" was being mourned by an entire city. John Gotti is seen as a hero by scores of people because he did what he had to do. Skipping out on a small tax bill or a minuscule hit in the portfolio isn’t doing what one has to do.

I think the shrapnel from these never-ending cases of violations of trust are much more damaging than the shrapnel from a dirty bomb ever will be. The consequences have been obvious if the stock market is the proxy, but it really becomes a deeper issue for the nation. Just as scientists say they can’t predict the true damage a dirty bomb would have, we never really will be able to truly measure the degree of the radiation of trust that has occurred. Investors also go into each day wondering when the next allegation will rear its ugly head. From a life and death point of view, we never want to deal with a dirty bomb, from a stock market point of view; investors don’t want to hear about another billionaire beating the system for a few bucks.

Thinking has to be Turned Upside Down

As the market continues to crumble and the pundits continue to scratch their heads, or in some cases pat themselves on the back, the big question is how does the market turn itself around? Stocks have been turned upside down and bounced on their heads.

In order to get on the same page the entire thinking of the financial world has to also be turned on its head.

It is true of everyone that worked in the financial arena, each day became a season and winners were at the closing bell. In order to play the game, one had to adjust their thinking and that more often than not meant abandoning a game plan that was focused on long-term success, safety and balance. To get back on track public companies will have to ignore the hue and cry from investors and stick to realistic long-term planning. It means more criticism and less income from stock options for those in the executive suites. It also means that analysts will have to focus on pick winners from a longer-term perspective.

The dilemma for the individual investor is to understand that the stock market isn’t a slot machine. They will also have to pay for research and understand that it is an investment, a blueprint that doesn’t become a castle over night. Along the way, it could look like an outhouse, but it will be the only way.

The word "investing" has always had long-term implications and that is the way it will have to be again. Sure, there will be those that want to trade for the quick buck and that’s fine. However, determining whether a foray into the market is a win or loss after only 24-hours is a sure way to ultimately become a loser.

So many money managers tried to cut corners and change the tenants of their funds and missions. So many frugal individual investors became undisciplined, quick-buck artists, and all paid a price. Conventional thinking was turned on its head during the 90s and now it will have to be turned again. I don’t think we have to do a complete 360-degree turn, but the unrealistic attitude among investors is also playing a role in the emotional heartbreaks. I don’t think we will ever buy and hold forever, again; by the same token, I don’t think we can buy stocks the same way we roll dices.

Focus Group of the Week Insurance (property and casual)

The insurance industry has been quietly yielding a lot of ground and is beginning to look very intriguing. These stocks made fantastic rebounds after the post 9-11 nosedive. However, that initial euphoric ride has come to a halt and now there are questions or dilemmas that must be answered before the Street has the nerve to upgrade the sector. Perhaps the biggest question mark is how much government support will be provided for terrorism insurance. This is a major sticking point as pointed out in a column in the Chicago Tribune. Before September 11th, the costliest terrorist act on the planet was $907 million for the attack on Nat West in London in 1993. So far, the running tab for 9-11 is $40 billion! Even the costliest natural disaster, Hurricane Andrew, has only added up to $19.6 billion in 2002 dollars. (For the record, the Oklahoma attack cost $125 million and the first WTC attack amounted to $725 million.) The House passed a bill for the government to pay 90% of the cost related to future terrorist attacks. Currently, the Senate’s version has the government picking up 90% after the industry pays $10 billion. It seems apparent that government help is guaranteed, obviously the House bill is more attractive to the industry, but in either case once this is resolved on Capitol Hill, I think, the sector will turn it around.

The insurance index, IUX suggest that there will be a major breakout through 300.

A good way to measure the pulse of the industry is to keep an eye on AIG. The company has been on high spin for a couple of weeks now; this suggests that the long anticipated retirement of Moe Greenberg is around the corner. If, and when that happens, the stock will come under some knee-jerk pressure, if it can hold its own I think that will be a bold statement for the entire sector. By the way, while there is talk of dirty bombs and subsequent terrorist attacks, the truth is that insurance companies have been able to use the hysteria to raise rates exponentially.

Our picks in the group include Progressive (PGR), Allstate (ALL), and Ambac Financial Group (ABK). If bottom fishing were your game, we’d use the recent earnings warning-induced weakness in St. Paul (SPC) as an opportunity to begin building a position.

Progressive Corp (PGR) $56.30
Aside from the company’s charismatic founder this company has really stayed ahead of the curve and lived up to its namesake. That is one of the reasons the stock continues to outperform the industry. Even with its great chart, the stock is trailing below the industry average PE of 29. Its price to sales ratio is 1.62 versus 2.62 for the industry. The company has also enjoyed very steady sequential growth. The stock acts like its extended short-term, but the long-term outlook is fabulous and we think the stock is a buy at any price below $60.00. Our year-end target is $75 and twelve-month target is $90.00.

Allstate (ALL) $37.00
In April, the WSJ wrote a report on how the company could save money by working with retailers on replacement parts as opposed to sending out claims checks. I’m not sure if the company feels skittish about taking advise from a newspaper, but it underscores the fact that there are ways for insurance companies to derive additional revenues. Though the company warned and lowered guidance in February, they have since confirmed current guidance. Yet, the stock is still in a downward trajectory and may have to test the 200-day moving average around $35.00 before turning. Another area to look to buy the stock is with a close above $39.00. In the meantime, it’s trading at a PE lower than the industry, a price to sales ratio of 0.90 versus 2.62 and a price to book of 1.50 versus 2.30.

Ambac Financial Group (ABK) $66.50
This is a hybrid company as they also provide investment services, interest rate swaps and cash management services among other non-insurance businesses. That said, this is the clear momentum champ in the space and we all know that new highs begat new highs. The stock is trading what looks like a real low trailing PE of 16 versus the industry average 29, but the five-year range for the company has seen the highest PE at 18.6 so this could be a problem. HoweverArticle Search, the stock looks like it has room to $70.00 and a breakout from there should land the stock north of $75.00.

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