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Our 28 Favorite Stocks: July Performance Review & Outlook

In this week’s Blue Harbinger Weekly, we provide a brief performance review and outlook for each of the 28 holdings across our Blue Harbinger strategies. We also provide access to a members-only report on our “Top 3 Covered Call Stocks.” Lastly, you’ll notice we’ve updated performance though the end of July, and all three Blue Harbinger strategies continue to significantly outperform.

Our Top 3 Big Bank Ideas: Impressive Dividends, Price Appreciation Potential

Many dividend investors are overlooking these three obvious opportunities. It’s time to acknowledge the financial crisis is in the rear view mirror for some banks. In particular, we highlight three big bank stocks that have big growing dividends, very low risk, and the potential for very big price appreciation. We own two of them, and we’re considering purchasing the third.

A Tale of Four Stocks: There Will Be Winners and Losers

This week we review four stocks. First we review one of our stalwart blue chip holdings that is currently trading at a discounted price thereby providing an attractive entry point for long-term investors. Next, we provide a checkup on an attractive small cap growth company we own that provides cloud-based payroll processing services, and has the potential to easily double in price and/or get bought out at an attractive premium. And finally, we provide some additional insights on Yahoo and how the stock price of its eventual acquirer could first fall and then rise significantly.

Top 5 Donald Trump Stocks Worth Considering

This week's Blue Harbinger Weekly is a continuation of our free report titled Ten Donald Trump Stocks Worth Considering. Specifically, we provide detailed reports for each of the top five stocks. We believe each stock offers a particularly attractive dividend yield and significant price appreciation potential. Without further ado, here are the top 5 Donald Trump stocks worth considering...

Continued Outperformance for Blue Harbinger Stocks

All three Blue Harbinger strategies continue to outperform. This week’s Weekly reviews the performance of the individual holdings within each strategy, and we focus on several stocks in particular that we believe provide terrific buying opportunities right now.  And just for grins, here is a fun quote from Charlie Munger.

Are You Diversified? Appropriately?

Long-term investors should not forget the risk-reward tradeoff.  For example, if you were diversified into investment-grade bonds over the last year then your account balance probably hasn’t suffered as much as if you’d invested entirely in stocks.  However, over the long-term, we expect stocks to significantly outperform less-risky bonds.  This week’s Weekly highlights some extremely attractive stock-specific opportunities that have been created by 2016’s recent market volatility.

Year-End Rebalancing and Great Opportunities

Time to sell your winners and buy the losers? Some contrarians might think so.  With 2016 right around the corner, it can be helpful to see what has and has not been working, and why.  For example, Caterpillar has been a persistent loser (as we wrote about here), and Nike and McDonald’s have been big winners this year.  This week we review the Dow Jones stocks we do own (and why), and our view on when it’s prudent to rebalance.

Ben Graham’s Margin of Safety and Current Market Opportunities

When Coca-Cola replaced their classic formula with “New Coke” in 1985 the stock tanked, and when they brought back “Coca-Cola Classic” less than three months later the stock rebounded significantly.  Similarly, when McDonald’s had trouble with Chinese meat suppliers in 2014 the stock tanked, and since rebuilding customer confidence the stock has come roaring back.  Chipotle Mexican Grill's (CMG) recent setbacks may be providing enough margin of safety for brave long-term investors to do something very smart.

American Express Update - Sam's Club

It was announced this week that American Express cards will soon be accepted at Sam's Club (the eighth largest U.S. retailer and a leading membership warehouse club for small businesses and consumers).  We view this as an incremental positive for American Express (AXP), especially after losing their exclusivity deal with Costco earlier this year.

We consider now a great time to invest in American Express because the stock is trading at an attractive valuation.  The valuation is attractive because the market over-reacted to some negative news earlier this year (i.e. AXP has underperformed the broader market year-to-date due to the loss of Costco exclusivity as mentioned above, and due to a negative antitrust ruling).  However, AXP is still an extremely profitable company, with lots of room to grow, and an attractive dividend yield.  You can read our complete AXP thesis here.

American Express (AXP) Update


American Express was up 6% near the market-close on Friday as information emerged that Value Act Capital Management may have acquired a nearly 5% stake in the firm.  According to American Express spokeswoman Marina Norville:

"ValueAct is a well-respected firm.  We have been speaking with them, as we do with other investors, and look forward to continuing a constructive dialogue."

It's good news if it turns out ValueAct has taken a position because it sends a signal to the market that some smart money believes the stock has upside.  Additionally, as an activist investor, ValueAct may pressure American Express management to make some changes to the company to help bring out the value.

If it turns out ValueAct has not taken the position then the stock will likely give back some (or all) of the gains.  Regardless, we at Blue Harbinger believe in American Express.  You can read our original thesis here.

American Express (AXP) - Thesis

Rating: BUY
Current Price $77.55
Price Target: $91.46

To paraphrase Baron Rothschild, “Buy when there is blood in the streets.”  American Express is currently suffering from several serious wounds (the stock price is down 17% year-to-date while the S&P 500 is essentially flat).  First, AXP’s stock price took a hit this year from its ending exclusive card relationship with Costco.  And second, AXP has been attacked by the US government’s antitrust ruling which will allow merchants to discriminate against American Express cards for charging higher point-of-purchase fees (in theory, merchants will be incentivized to do this because AXP charges merchants higher discount fees than other cards like Visa and MasterCard).  However, the impacts of these two wounds may be less serious than perceived, and AXP may still have a few tricks up its sleeve.

Regarding the antitrust lawsuit, it’s helpful to understand how American Express’s business model is different from competing cards like Visa and MasterCard.  AXP issues its own cards through its own banks (American Express Centurion Bank and American Express Bank, FSB).  And AXP’s primary source of revenue is the discount fee charged (as a percent of the charge amount) to merchants that accept American Express cards.  Therefore, AXP’s revenue depends on the total amount spent by customers and not on the volume of transactions.  On the other hand, Visa and MasterCard are not banks, and they make money based on the volume of transactions.  As a result, the charge card industry has evolved so it is cheaper for merchants to accept Visa and MasterCard over AXP.  AXP has defended against this risk by requiring merchants to sign agreements saying they will not encourage customers to use Visa and MasterCard over AXP.  Unfortunately for AXP, recent antitrust rulings have decided these agreements are unlawful and must be eliminated.  So now the question becomes, how much business will AXP lose as a result of the antitrust ruling (which by the way, the details of the implementation of this ruling are still being determined).

For some added color, in 2014 Visa had more than 2 billion cards in use worldwide and processed more than 60 billion transactions, while AmEx had just 107 million cards in force and processed just 6 billion transaction.  Despite this disparity, American Express had annual gross revenues of $33 billion while Visa brought in just $14 billion (Forbes).  The disparity exists because American Express has built its business to attract high credit quality high transaction size customers, whereas Visa has built its business simply to attract a lot of volume (they don’t care about credit quality because they’re not on the hook for defaults like AXP is).

Regarding the loss of Costco exclusivity, the media has spun this as a very bad thing for AXP, but in reality this may not be nearly as bad as perceived.  For some background, starting in April 2016, Citigroup will replace American Express as the exclusive issuer for Costco credit cards in the U.S. (AXP’s deal with Costco in Canada ended last year) because AXP and Costco couldn’t come to terms.  Costco accounts for roughly 20% of AXP’s loans.  According to Warren Buffett (his Berkshire Hathaway is AXP’s largest shareholder) “Somebody was going to get the bid, and American Express learned a week or two ago that they were not the one that was going to get it... I don’t know the terms of the new deal, but I don’t think Citi will get rich off of it."  Merchants (such as Costco) have been pressuring card issuers for better deals, and the loss of Costco likely isn’t as big of a hit to future earnings as many people perceive simply because the terms Costco was demanding were likely less profitable for AXP than the old terms. 

Regarding Valuation, it is important to remember the impact of these two wounds (loss of Costco exclusivity and antitrust rulings) are already baked into the price.  What matters at this point is whether you believe the market over- or under-reacted to these events, and what do you think will happened to American Express’s business going forward.

Regarding the antitrust rulings, I believe American Express’s high-end business (remember the company targets higher spending customers) may be “stickier” than perceived.  For example, even if merchants offer a 1% discount to use non-Amex cards, customers may use AXP anyway if they know AXP is still offering them a 2% reward for the transaction.  Additionally, AXP may be able to re-optimize its discount rate to attract the customers it wants and to maintain profitability.  Further, some merchants will do anything they can to serve customers therefore some merchants simply won’t discriminate against American Express.  Another alternative for AXP is to focus more on its small but fastest growing segment (GNMS) which utilizes a business model similar to Visa and MasterCard and therefore is not being targeted by government antitrust laws.

Regarding the loss of Costco, American Express has other growth opportunities.  For example, the company has the world’s largest integrated payments platform (i.e. a global network connecting millions of consumers, businesses and merchants) which is a source of powerful data and creates many growth opportunities to better serve customers.  For instance, AXP has recently integrated with the Uber app to let AmEx card members earn double rewards points or redeem points for rides.  AmEx also formed a significant partnership with Apple Pay. Apple has designed a simple, secure, user-friendly payments feature into its latest-generation iPhones, and AmEx believes that integrating their capabilities with Apple Pay can help fuel growth in mobile payments. AmEx is also active in the startup community with ventures in a range of startups combining commerce and data science.  More broadly, AmEx has large untapped potential to benefit from the ongoing global shift into electronic payments and away from cash and checks.  According the AXP CEO, Ken Chenault “It’s not easy to see a longstanding partnership [Costco] end. But when the numbers no longer add up, it’s the only sensible outcome.”

Forward Price-to-Earnings Ratio:  Based on historical data, AXP averages a forward price-earnings ratio of 95%-100% that of the S&P 500 Index.  Using a 2015 AXP EPS estimate of $5.72 (Yahoo!Finance) and the S&P 500 forward P/E ratio recently sitting at 16.4 times, that gives American Express a price target of $91.46/share (5.72 x 16.4 x 0.975).

Financial Management:
From a financial standpoint, American Express is well-run.  First off, AXP has come under intense regulatory scrutiny since the financial crisis, and as a result its financials are very strong.  Even though AXP generates more cash than it needs to profitably operate, it still requires regulatory approval before issuing dividends or repurchasing shares.  According to the American Express annual report

“Historically, capital generated through net income and other sources, such as the exercise of stock options by employees, has exceeded the annual growth in our capital requirements. To the extent capital has exceeded business, regulatory and rating agency requirements, we have historically returned excess capital to shareholders through our regular common share dividend and share repurchase program.”

AXP has a dividend yield of around 1.5% and it has a regular share repurchase program (it repurchased over 4% of its total shares outstanding in each of the last two years).  The company returns four times as much cash to shareholders through share repurchases versus dividends signaling that AXP management may believe its stock price is undervalued.

AXP continues to make significant reallocations of its resources to optimize its business.  For example, at the end of 2014 AXP sold its investment in Concur Technologies (a travel management company) for $719 million (pre-tax), and reallocated a large portion of the proceeds to other area of its business such as marketing, promotion and awards.

Additionally, with over $44 billion of customer deposits, AXP will likely benefit if and when interest rates rise as they’ll be able to more easily cover the costs of deposits and earn an increased spread between the rates they pay and the rates they earn.

Risks and Challenges:
American Express faces a variety of risks and challenges in growing and maintaining its business.  For example, expanding outside the US presents challenges; the US economy is growing, but growth outside of the US is weak.  Additionally, the strong US dollar makes international growth a challenge.

As mentioned earlier, new regulations and the cost of co-brand relationships are both increasing.  Antitrust rulings against AXP’s discount fees and the loss of the Costco relationship are examples.

Competition in general is intensifying as both traditional players and new entrants want to disrupt the marketplace.

The derivatives used by AXP may lower volatility, but they are expensive, reduce profitability, and slow long-term growth.  For example, the forward contracts AXP uses to reduce foreign currency volatility are good for short-term earnings consistency, but bad for long-term profitability and they are making the groups that underwrite them very rich.  The same can be said of the interest rate swaps used by American Express.

AXP’s investment securities have a very large concentration of state and municipal obligations.  While these instruments may offer higher yields than treasuries they concentrate risk and have a higher likelihood of default.

Buy low, sell high.  American Express (AXP) stock price has suffered in 2015, but it’s not going out of business anytime soon.  The market has reacted very negatively to recent antitrust rulings and the loss of AXP’s exclusive relationship with Costco.  However the company is still extremely profitable, it has opportunity for continued growth, and the market is valuing the stock too low.

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