No Obvious Panic from Insiders

We have stayed 100% invested over the past couple week’s turmoil despite debt fears in Europe again hitting investors’ sensibilities, concern of a hard landing in China, a disappointing March jobs number, and, well, whatever other reasonable angst causing metric is out there—and there are many.

We are hardly perma bulls, but feel that this rally in U.S. equities still has more upside left in it. The pols in Europe have shown that they can and will do what is necessary to help their member countries deal with their debt issues. Though Spain is a much larger problem in dollar terms than Greece was, we feel that assuming inevitable economic Armageddon in Europe is still a losing investment strategy.

Fortunately, we can afford to be a bit more nonchalant about the Euro woes given the U.S. oriented nature of our investments. The insider filings we use as our first screen to determine where we focus our fundamental analysis come from the SEC, which only collects the filings for U.S. traded firms. And while there are plenty of international companies trading on U.S. exchanges, the data has proven best at identifying opportunities in mid and small cap firms based Stateside.

Which is fine by us. When we review the risks and rewards of various fixed income and equity markets, U.S. equities still appear a better bet than most—both from a valuation and safety point of view. We continue to feel strongly that the thousands of smaller, under followed U.S. publicly traded companies represent its own emerging market. One that is all the more compelling for the relatively better (though hardly perfect) corporate governance and accounting practices they must adhere to, and the relatively more stable currency the securities are priced in.

The perception of better relative security in U.S. equities can only increase as problems in Europe understandably make investors nervous. It’s not unreasonable to us to believe that sophisticated global investors may well start looking more favorable at U.S. markets as a result. Imagine how far U.S. stocks could climb the global wall of worry if the rally actually garnered some volume behind it.

We further maintain that the poor jobs report out of the States that was blamed at least part of the recent weakness could just as easily be spun into a “Tepper-like” bullish argument. To wit: if the U.S. economy recovery is weaker than previously thought, then the concern from earlier in April that the Federal Reserve is done with its stimulus becomes moot.

Staying Stock Focused

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. The odds of further market deterioration appear greater now than they did just two weeks ago, and deteriorating sentiment is more than enough to lose bulls’ money—even if fundamentals don’t appear much changed.

As always during confusion times for the market, focusing on specific stock information makes action or non action clearer. If an individual stock position looks particularly vulnerable as a result of April’s gyrations, then take profits in it for that company specific reason—not because the market looks more vulnerable. We may be taking our own advice soon by taking profits in some of our positions that appear more exposed than others to Europe—like Ford (F) and AvisBudget (CAR)–where the concern of an imminent recession is stronger.

Staying stock specific also goes for deciding whether to buy new stocks during these dips sooner rather than later. We’d have no qualms buying into weakness now if we saw an obvious candidate. As it is, however, the seasonally slow filing period for insiders has seemingly not yet been significantly affected by the market’s gyrations. There were only 11 stocks on the Bullish New Finds screens of our weekly InsiderInsights Newsletter last week, and of that small population, only 5 had the look of a stock that insiders were consciously buying due to the pullback. They included: Texas Industries (TXI); VistaPrint (VPRT); Sunrise Senior Living (SRZ); AngioDynamics (ANGO), and; AZZ (AZZ). This a decent group to investigate over the coming week, but not the pound-the-table “buy-the-dip” we would like to have seen from insiders.

And insiders absolutely can show their bullishness even if trading windows are closed to them by “opting in” to their shares. That’s our term for when executives exercise incentive options, and don’t sell them all. An option exercise is not an open-market transaction, and therefore not banned when trading windows are closed. This type of accumulation also doesn’t run afoul of short-swing restriction, so even if an insider made an open-market sale in the last six months, they could opt in now if their stock craters and they think it’s too much of a bargain not to accumulate. Opting in was why AZZ made our Bullish New Finds list last week. The others listed above all had open-market purchases.

We’re also not against going short if an obvious candidate arises. There again, there were also only 11 stocks on our Bearish New Finds tables from last week’s slow insider filing action, and none looked obvious to us to short to help hedge our long exposure.

The bottom line is that insiders own lack of panic so far in April emboldens us to stay the long course for now. But this seems a particularly bad time to throw one’s full rep behind a market call, and although we still conclude that a larger contagion-style sell off appears unlikely by our insider buy/sell ratios, there is nothing in our insider approach that can predict whether this correction will eventually continue to indices’ 200-day averages 7% to 10% below present levels.

If you’re a trader, that probably represents too much risk to bare. If you’re an investor, you’ll likely be fine starting to bottom feed already. Just be honest about what sort of investor you are before you act.

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