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Now’s The Time For Low-Debt Stocks Like Gilead And These 3 Others To Pay Off

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Companies with high debt lived in a sort of paradise in 2019-2021. With interest rates extraordinarily low, their debt burden didn’t hurt. Now it looks as if it was a fool’s paradise. Interest rates are rising, and the debt burden is beginning to bite.

I relish low-debt companies. They have little risk of bankruptcy and they enjoy strategic flexibility. They won’t need to sell a promising division to raise cash. If they ever need to borrow, the rate they pay should be reasonable.

The average company today has debt equal to about 60% of stockholders’ equity (corporate net worth). In today’s column, I highlight five companies with debt of 10% of equity or less.

Gilead Sciences GILD has disappointed its investors with a 2% cumulative return over the past three years. By contrast, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index returned 48% over that period. And yet, Gilead is riding a 15-year profit streak. It earned more than 10% on invested capital in nine of the past ten years. And it has no debt whatever.

Gilead’s best-selling drugs are for the prevention and treatment of HIV infections. Veklury, for the treatment of Covid-19, also made a significant contribution to revenue last year. Its product line is diverse, and there are several potential cancer drugs in its pipeline. The stock sells for 17 times recent earnings, but less than 10 times the earnings analysts expect for the year ahead.

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Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moderna (MRNA) burst into prominence when it developed one of the two leading vaccines for Covid-19. The company’s revenue was less than $1 billion through 2020, the jumped to $18.4 billion in 2021. For the past four quarters, it’s $22.6 billion.

Investors expect the stage coach to turn into a pumpkin when the pandemic fades. That’s why Moderna shares fetch a mere four times recent earnings. Their fears could be right, but I think the research prowess Moderna displayed in developing its Spikevax Covid-19 vaccine will lead to other big hits.

As a speculation, Alpha & Omega Semiconductor Ltd. (AOSL) interests me. Based in Sunnyvale, California, this chipmaker has a market value of just over $1 billion, making it (just barely) a mid-capitalization stock.

Its profit history is spotty. It went public in 2010. Since then it’s had two years I’d consider great, one year I’d consider good, four loss years, and five years I’d consider mediocre. The company’s return on invested capital has been good (about 13%) in the past four quarters. It has bought down its debt to 4% of stockholders’ equity. Wall Street mostly ignores the company. Only four analysts publish opinions; three of those rate the stock a buy.

Another company with an unimpressive history but good results recently is Intrepid Potash (IPI). Russia and Ukraine have historically been big producers and exporters of fertilizer. With the two at war and Russia under sanctions, that’s unlikely to be true in the near future.

Fertilizer prices have been rising fast. Most investors who want to play this theme will turn to big-company stocks such as CF Industries Holdings CF and Mosaic Co MOS .

Intrepid Potash is far smaller than these, and riskier, but I like it that the stock is cheap (less than four times earnings) and the company is debt-free.

Sanderson Farms SAFM , a chicken producer, agreed last year to be acquired by a joint venture of Cargill and Continental Grain (both privately owned). The agreed price was $4.53 billion or $203 per share in cash. The stock, however, was trading at $188.50 as of May 6. So, investors have $14.50 of doubt that the deal will go through.

If the acquisition is consummated, that would be a 7.7% arbitrage profit. If it happens within six months, it’s 15% annualized. If the deal doesn’t go through, I’d still be happy to own Sanderson, which I’ve owned several times in the past.

The Record

I’ve written 19 columns about stocks with low debt. The average 12-month return on my picks has been 27.1%, which compares very favorably with 10.7% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Total Return Index. Fifteen of my 19 columns have shown a profit, and 13 have beaten the S&P 500.

Bear in mind that my column results are hypothetical and shouldn’t be confused with results I obtain for clients. Also, past performance doesn’t predict the future.

My column from a year ago was one of the four that showed a loss. All four of my picks declined, with the booby prize going to Logitech International SA (LOGI), down 44%. Also in the red were T. Rowe Price Group (TROW), Sturm Ruger (RGGR) and Bio-Rad Laboratories BIO .

Disclosure: I own Moderna and Sanderson Farms personally, and in a hedge fund I run. (In the hedge fund, the Moderna position is in the form of call options.)

Finance

Teacher, Police And Firefighter Pensions Are Being Secretly Looted By Wall Street

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America’s severely underfunded public pensions are allocating ever-greater assets to the highest cost, highest risk, most secretive investments ever devised by Wall Street, such private equity, hedge funds, real estate, and commodities—all in a desperate search for higher net returns that, not surprisingly (given the outlandish fees and risks), fail to materialize. Transparency—public scrutiny and accountability—has been abandoned, as pensions agree to Wall Street secrecy schemes that eviscerate public records laws.

Our nation’s state and federal securities laws are premised upon full disclosure of all material risks and fees to investors: “Read the prospectus before you invest,” is the oft-cited warning by securities regulators. Nevertheless, teachers, police, firefighters and other government workers today are not allowed to see how their retirement savings are managed or, more likely, mismanaged by Wall Street.

For nearly a decade, the United States Securities and Exchange Commision has warned investors that malfeasance and bogus fees are commonplace in so-called “alternative” investments and, more recently, Chairman Gary Gensler has called for greater transparency to increase competition and lower fees.

Gensler has asked the agency’s staff to consider recommendations on ways to bring greater transparency to fee arrangements in private markets. “More competition and transparency could potentially bring greater efficiencies to this important part of the capital markets,” he said. “This could help lower the cost of capital for businesses raising money. This could raise the returns for the pensions and endowments behind the limited partner investors. This ultimately could help workers preparing for retirement and families paying for their college educations.”

Gensler has stated he would like to see a reduction in the fees these investments charge and has also commented on industry abuses such as ”side letters” which permit private funds to secretly give preferences to certain investors—preferences which harm public pensions.

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But that’s not good enough to protect public pension stakeholders.

No one—including the pensions themselves—seems to care that the government workers whose retirement security is at risk are being kept in the dark.

The SEC needs to do more—actually alert public pensioners as to those abuses the Commission knows full well are rampant, at a minumum. Advise them, Chairman Gensler, to demand to see and read prospectuses and other offering documents related to their hard-earned savings.

Does the SEC think it’s kosher for Wall Street to conspire with public pension officials to withhold this information from investors—any investors?

Since my 2013 forensic investigation of the Rhode Island state pension exposing gross mismanagement by then General Treasurer Gina Raimondo which I accurately predicted would cost workers dearly; my 2014 North Carolina state pension investigation exposing that $30 billion in assets had been moved into secretive, offshore accounts and, most recently, my investigation of the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio, I have provided my expert findings to the SEC staff for their review. Each and every public pension forensic investigation I have undertaken has extensively discussed Wall Street secrecy schemes that enable looting. In my book, How To Steal A Lot Money—Legally, I quote disclosures from SEC filings that detail industry abuses.

Join me, Chairman Gensler, in giving government workers a clue, a glimpse, a peek, at the alternative investment abusive industry practices that are carefully guarded by Wall Street and being hidden from them.

Teachers, police and firefighters deserve a fighting chance to protect their retirement savings.

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Finance

It Is Time To Buy Bonds

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US 10-year note prices are likely to rise through August. The monthly histogram below shows that July and August have been the two strongest months for the note price.

Monthly Return- US 10-Year Notes

Blue: Average Percentage Change

Red: Probability of a rise on that day

Green: Expected Return (Product of the first 2)

These numbers are static in the sense that they change little over the years. This is only one cycle, the one-year cycle, whereas there are many cycles operative at any one time. In order to get a reading on such other rhythms, a scan is run to identify other profitable price cycles. The graph below reveals the most valuable cycles that are operative at any one time.

10-Year Note Monthly Cycle

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These cycles reinforce the seasonal tendency for notes to rise. Prices have risen in 60% to 65% of the time in these summer months. With the dynamic cycle also in ascent, the probabilities rise to about 65% to over 70%. There are similar and supportive developments in the Japanese and German fixed income markets.

The cycle projection must be confirmed by market activity. The daily graph reveals that price broke through a downtrend line.

10-Year Notes Broke Through Resistance

Here is a helpful sentiment indicator that supports the bullish view. The cover page of this week’s Barron’s points to much higher rates. Applying contrary opinion, this suggests lower rates and higher note and bond prices. The first objective is 123.0.

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Finance

Will There Be War Over Taiwan – The Next Spy Thriller

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I usually go through a rhythm of reading one or two serious books, followed by a few works of fiction and with summer on the way I wanted to highlight a few of both. In that regard I have just finished Laurence Durrell’s ‘White Eagles in Serbia’, an old-fashioned espionage thriller where the hero Colonel Methuen is dropped behind enemy lines in post war Serbia (he speaks excellent Serbo-Croat) and becomes embroiled in a violent plot to overthrow Tito.

The book is a warm-up to reading Durrell’s ‘The Alexandria Quartet’, a work that nearly won him the Nobel Prize. Durrell was part of an interesting Anglo-Irish family, who largely considered themselves Indian – his brother Gerald, the naturalist and writer, touches on this in ‘My Family and Other Animals’.

Thrillers

Though I am not an expert on these matters, I found ‘White Eagles’ a more realistic account of espionage than much of what we see in the media today (Mick Herron’s ‘Slow Horses’ is good), and overall it is a tale of derring-do that is more in keeping with the work of the founding fathers of the genre – Eric Ambler, John Buchan, Erskine Childers and Ted Allebury for example.

It also made opportune reading given what seems to be an epidemic of espionage – with reports of the Chinese hacking group APT40 using graduates to infiltrate Western corporates and notably the admission by the head of Switzerland’s intelligence that Russian espionage is rife in that country (notably in Geneva – for which readers should consult Somerset Maugham’s ‘Ashenden’ as background material).

These and other trends – such as the outbreak of a heavy cyber battle last week (against Lithuania and Norway for instance) and the increasingly public ‘clandestine’ war between Israel and Iran (they have just sacked their spy chief) point to a world that is ever more contested and complex.

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Secret World

One of the new trends in the space is cyber espionage – both in the sense of stealing state and industrial/corporate secrets, influencing actors (such as the manipulation of the 2016 US Presidential election) and outright acts of hostility such as the hacking of public databases and utilities (i.e. healthcare systems). Here, if readers are looking for some serious literature I can recommend two excellent books – Nicole Perlroth’s ‘This is how they tell me the world ends’ and ‘Secret World’ by Christopher Andrew.

I am personally more intrigued by the difference between a spy and a strategist. A spy’s work could well be described as the pursuit of information about someone who is acting with a specific intent, as well as a sense of their reaction function. There are plenty of examples – from Christine Joncourt (‘La Putain de la Republique’) to Richard Sorge (see Owen Matthews’ ‘An Impeccable Spy’).

In contrast a strategist may try to plot trends and the opportunities, spillovers and damage they may cause. The US National Intelligence department is good in this regard, becoming the first major intelligence agency to publish detailed warnings on the side effects of climate damage.

Spies and strategists might work together, but history is full of examples (LC Moyzisch’s ‘Operation Cicero’) where intelligence fails to make it through the strategic process or is simply ignored for political reasons (might the early warnings on the invasion of Ukraine be an example).

Asia next?

In the spirit of the Durrells and Flemings of the world, what issues might be of interest in terms of digging into unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Here are a few ideas, most of which are Asia focused (we might see an uptick in Asia focused thrillers).

On the diplomatic front, an interesting recent development was the visit of Indonesian president Joko Widodo to Ukraine, and then Moscow. It was a rare visit to Ukraine by an Asian leader and potentially marks the emergence or at least aspiration of Indonesia (population 273 million) as an emerging world diplomatic player. What has intrigued me so far is that there has been little coordination by the populous emerging (largely Muslim) nations (Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan) in the face of high energy and food prices, and that potentially Widodo could play a unifying role here.

Then, still in Asia, but on a more deadly footing, if the Western commentariat is to be believed, China is preparing an assault on Taiwan, and looking to learn from Russia’s military errors in this regard. Other countries are reacting, and I suspect that there will be much intrigue around Taiwan’s ability to acquire sufficiently powerful ballistic missiles that could strike the coastal cities of China, and relatedly how long might it take Japan to produce nuclear missiles (my sources say they could very ambitiously do it in five months!).

So, whilst the espionage literature of the 20th century has tended to be focused on Geneva, Berlin and London in the 21st century we may find ourselves reading about ‘behind the lines’ exploits in Jakarta and Tanegashima.

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