“Financial Behemoth Set to Double … Send Shockwaves” Skousen

I’ve written about various teasers from Mark Skousen’s services several times over the last year or so, and he is, at least, always confident. He has teased several good stocks that have performed well, including Sadia, ABB, and CVRD, and several that have stunk — like Volcano and Centerline Holdings (to be fair, I thought Centerline was interesting when he wrote about it last year, too, but they’re a real estate financing partnership … and that teaser came out before the credit crunch that brought them down like a house of cards — don’t let today’s 8% move up remove the memory of it’s prior 80% fall).

But I thought, since I spent yesterday taking a gander at a short call on the financials, and specifically on Lehman Brothers (which got downgraded by S&P and clobbered again today), that I should give equal time … and Skousen, who would like you to subscribe to his Forecasts and Strategies newsletter, is teasing us with a big financial name that he expects to double and send shockwaves through the market.

I can almost feel them. Or maybe that’s the heebie-jeebies.

He starts out the teaser ad with the following:

“One of my favorite strategies is to hunt down bargains overlooked by other investors. And right now I have my eye on a hidden gem with strong fundamentals and a thriving core business.”

Can’t argue with that. The only strategy I like better is “buy low, sell high.” You can have that one for free.

We get a few clues:

“… More than 3 million customer accounts, healthy operating margins, and more than $176 billion in customer assets. And in its most recent quarter before the real estate debacle hit, both client assets and customer cash were growing at double-digit rates.”

Let’s leave aside that last bit, that “before the debacle” they were growing well. That’s a little like saying that before I gained 30 pounds, I was in fighting trim. Doesn’t mean much about how I’ll be next year, we need more data (hint: so far, it looks like I’m going to remain flabby and lazy). Still, it’s a clue.

And here’s another one.

“…One of the world’s most highly-respected hedge funds recently injected $2.55 billion in capital into this behemoth. That kind of money isn’t thrown around on Wall Street unless a turnaround is likely — if not imminent — on the short-term horizon.”

I’d substitute “hoped for” and “predicted” for “likely” and “imminent”, but still, another clue.


Company insiders have loaded up on shares “to the tune of $2 million” in “one recent week.”

Finally, the hope for the future …

“could easily double its share price in the next year”


“Meanwhile, the company’s turnaround plan is gaining traction and building momentum on all fronts. Its successful service performance, marketing strategy, and competitive yields on its money market fund are bringing customers back in droves and attracting hordes of new customers, both retail and consumer.”

How does the Thinkolator thinkify on this one?

Well, it might be big, but not necessarily a “behemoth” — Citigroup, a behemoth by any measure, has about 200 million accounts … so this is much smaller.

The answer? The stock that Skousen calls “An Easy Double: The #1 Bargain U.S. Stock to Buy Right Now”?

The Thinkolator obligingly spits out, with some certainty …

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E*trade Financial (ETFC)

Yes, they still have the gall to use an asterisk in their name. Come on, it’s not 1999 anymore. Letters, people! Words!

E*trade, in case you’ve been living under a rock (and in which case, I won’t say I’m not envious), is an online bank and broker. It was the bank that saved them in the dot-com meltdown, since all the people who were suddenly terrified to trade stocks decided to start searching for new mortgages on line for all their condo-flipping needs, and E*trade was more than happy to oblige. I even had a mortgage from them at one point.

But all good things must come to an end. And the bank that was supposed to stabilize the online brokerage — which has been doing fine in recent years, too, and if you’ve seen CNBC at all you’ll note that they’re still advertising heavily — nearly brought the whole thing down this time.

That, on the strength of all the mortgage assets they held on their books — what Skousen so nicely described as “getting over their head” before the real estate meltdown. Turned out — and you’ve heard this story before — those assets aren’t worth as much today as they were a year ago.

So E*trade, which now has a market cap of about $1.9 billion, recorded a loss of $1.7 billion in the fourth quarter last year — almost $4 a share for a company that had a share price of well over $10 before this news started coming out. And this wasn’t one of those accounting writedowns that gets “written up” later if the market comes back, a hope that we hear often about banks these days — no, E*trade actually sold a big portfolio of assets to get them off their books and took a real, actual, genuine, now-have-less-cash-money loss of $2.2 billion on that sale.

That sale, by the way, was part and parcel of the decision by a hedge fund — in this case, Citadel, which is indeed well-known and respected, as per the teaser — to invest $2.55 billion or so in the company. They also bought those distressed assets. There’s an interesting analysis of that transaction, which happened late last Fall, here by Paul Kedrosky. Suffice to say, Citadel got a different deal than you’re being offered on the market today … don’t know if it will work out better or worse, in the end, but it wasn’t just a decision by the fund to buy up shares of ETFC.

And then, the turnaround begins? Well, maybe — they have less money in customer accounts now than they did at the end of last year, which is no big surprise … but not a lot less, so they didn’t get a full on “run on the bank” that send all their account holders running for the exits at any cost. That’s good news, it looks like the business was at least saved to fight another day.

They’re still, however, losing money — less than $100 million in the last quarter, reported in late April, so that’s much better than last quarter. But it’s still a loss of 20 cents a share for a $4 stock. They’ve got all kinds of information about their turnaround plan on their website, so you can review it all, do some thinkifyin’ of your own, and decide if their odds are good enough for you.

The stock price has recovered somewhat from the very bottom, when the breathless flacks came on CNBC and said they would be bought out or bankrupt within moments (or something like that) — when fear was at its peak (so far, at least), E*trade hit about $2.25 in early January, and since then it has mostly traded between $3 and $5. It’s smack dab in the center of that range now.

I can’t tell you whether or not E*trade will ever recover to its former glory, or if it will ever lose that irritating asterisk. I can tell you that it does certainly look like a bargain by some metrics, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to execute on this turnaround and survive tough competition to rebuild a profitable and growing company. Mark Skousen apparently thinks there’s a good chance, but I have not been tempted enough by the turnaround story to dig any deeper.

And “shockwaves?” Maybe, but let’s remember that if the shares double from here, they’ll still be down something like 70% from where they were a year ago today (back then, in the halcyon days, free from fear, they traded at about $25 a share … it took only about six months for the shares to go from $25 to $2.50).

I don’t know whether or not Skousen has a particularly good perspective for analyzing banks and brokers and assessing their turnaround prospects — he well may, but the only other recent financial company I’ve seen him tout has been Quest Capital, which is a Canadian mortgage REIT that some might say is in a turnaround, too — so far that one’s not exactly lighting up the night sky (down about 10% or so since he last touted it in early February) … but at least it does pay a decent dividend.

If you’ve got something to share about Skousen, E*trade … or anything else, really, feel free. I hope everyone’s ignoring the stock market today (or happily hunting for bargains, depending on your temperament) and, therefore, having a lovely start to their week.

full disclosure: I