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Invest With Courage in Our Harsh World

· Business

Inequality flourishes everywhere. Just read the front page of The New York Times. The Big Board is still the perfect metaphor for the widening gap between haves and have-nots. Internet properties, Alphabet accepted, still doing twice the market’s 10% gain. Nobody wants small cap goods or even mid cap properties.

Consider Facebook. With a market cap approximating $500 billion, it sells around 7.5 times book value, and at 25 times my estimate of forward 12 months’ earnings. Share based compensation tots up to 25% of earnings and outstanding shares are growing at 1.5%.

Facebook holds over $35 billion in cash with $18 billion in goodwill on the balance sheet. To renew itself continuously, R&D runs at 20% of revenues, a most notable number. Apple spends around 5% on R&D. Facebook’s operating margin has expanded to 47% of revenues. This is a work in progress, and I like the vibes.

Enormous variance permeates top 100 names in the S&P 500 Index. General Electric, IBM, Coca-Cola and Pfizer are dead paper. But, railroads sell at 20 times next year's earnings power. Schlumberger and Halliburton sell between 30 and 40 times current earnings, as if they're entering an energy super cycle. You can own JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup at 11 times conservative estimates for 2018, a deep market discount, almost 40%.

Net, net, corporations like GE, IBM and Coca-Cola seem too big to reinvent themselves. They were the momentum stocks during the sixties. Does anyone but me remember when the Watson’s bet the company (IBM) on their introduction of the 360 Computer? The also-rans remind me of New York State’s northern cities - Buffalo, Utica, even Rochester that flourished when the Erie Canal opened for trade in the 19th century. In the seventies Eastman Kodak was a Nifty fifty stock.

I do bet on remakes that could work, starting with AT&T. Last week the market finally liked something about T. Earnings were an upside surprise. The brass ring is the buyout of Time Warner gains approval by yearend, a true media transformation on a piece of paper yielding 5%.

I see General Motors as something better than a cyclical metal bender. It's cheap if you give ‘em average earnings power of even $3 a share over 3 years. Currently, the number is $6, the dividend over 4%, at just $1.52. Hopefully, payout is headed to 2 bucks a year or 2 out.

I like the way management is playing gin rummy with offshore properties, keeping China and discarding most of Europe and South America. Yes, I know, they needed a $50 billion bailout to survive, but Citigroup was goat meat, too, back in 2009.

Never underestimate how long it takes to make things right in the country. Guys in workboots sensed this, buying into the Murphy man’s patter on jobs. How many steelworkers appreciate excess capacity in steel has reigned for over 30 years? Infrastructure spending? No funds coming.

Because the country faces deep-seated issues of lopsided income distribution and a progressively defanged, even deranged Oval Office, don't extrapolate more than moderate momentum for GDP. Low interest rates could prevail for years to come. Janet Yellen can't find any inflation using both her hands and feet. Historically speaking, mortgage rates hovering around 4% are a Consumer Reports Best Buy.

The Big Board’s largess should prevail, and I'll try hard not to feel guilty about participation. Reciprocal of low interest rates is growth stocks. Alibaba, I love you, but you don't even know it! I'm not giving up on Wall Street getting an increasing share of GDP, but it won't be easy unless “risk on” prevails.

Deep seated issues don't fade away. By 2030, the Social Security system falls into negative ground. The push to lower benefits or raise taxes therein hovers out there, maybe in the next Presidential term. They could bump up the qualifying age level a couple of years, and solve it actuarily with a stroke of the pen.

My chart on compensation of employees past 3 decades as a percentage of GDP shows a wipeout. Labor’s take contracted from 67% to 57%. How many labor union leaders or even Congressmen have processed this depressing trajectory?

Contrapuntally, pressure from the corporate sector to lower their tax rate is very noisy. The Koch brothers openly proclaim they'll spend what it takes to lobby this issue. But, how many Congressmen have reviewed the chart on tax rates for U.S. nonfinancial corporations?

Early fifties, we’re talking taxes in upper sixties. Consider, we've been below 30% for much of the past 3 decades. Today, savvy major corporations have whittled down taxes to low-to-mid-twenties. Not much different than the industrial world's norm.

Sadly, the Occupy Wall Street crowd waxed vociferous, but shouldered no specific ideology or agenda for change. They should a dug down into the Labor Department's long term stats or perused a dozen proxy statements of tech houses to unveil the scope of corporate management's methodical rapacity blessed by hired consultants. The SEC forever is silent, too busy with insider trading cases so irrelevant to financial markets’ health but do gather headlines.

Past 30 years, the middle class lost income share to the top 20%. Income inequality actually increased for the last generation. I define wealthy as the adjective for anyone who doesn't need to work. Their wealth exceeds 30 times middle class income. I'm assuming a realistic after tax income flow of 3.3%, what you'd get on longer maturity tax exempt's. Without a nest egg of $3 million you don't qualify. Sorry!

Equity for the middle class largely resides in home ownership. Average equity produces no more than $75,000 net of mortgage debt. Hot real estate locations like Williamsburg in Brooklyn are exceptions. Incidentally, New York City politicians studiously avoided the issue of grossing up for tax purposes huge increases in home values these past 5 decades. Brownstones changing hands today at $2 million carry a tax load around $6,000. Homeowners rejoice, but silently. These homes sold for $15,000 early postwar decade.

Never forget, the market is the Great Humbler, smarter than us. My putting bank stocks at a valuation above 60% of the market are dangerous. Citigroup's leveraged exposure of $2.4 trillion in assets is backed by tangible equity of $183 billion. This is the typical bank construct, leveraged at least at 10 to 1. That said, I own Citigroup - big because there're so few others sectors to play for operating leverage.

Industrials need a zippy economy, while traditional retailing is assailed by Amazon. Energy quotes are anyone's guess. Cola water has topped out while Procter & Gamble's topline rests sluggish. The existing pharma model of bumping up prices 5% to 10% per annum faces regulatory challenges. I've just eliminated over half the S&P 500’s sector weightings.

Internet properties, several now with market capitalizations of $500 billion or more could easily end up at 20% of the Index’s valuation. Forget ExxonMobil. Anyone underweighted in Facebook and Alibaba needs to perform some serious introspection.

These stocks are ahead year-to-date at least double the market’s 10% gain. BABA ranges above 50%, and as yet isn’t part of the S&P 500, an ironic twist for my favorite piece of paper. Would an added 1% to S&P's performance. Reciprocally, I'm a player in stocks where I think the consensus is obtuse. Include AT&T, GM and Citigroup, as just too cheap.

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