Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Why I sold a call option on Oracle

Today I sold a January, 2007 call option on Oracle at a strike price of $20. The premium was 70¢ a share. Yesterday (when I placed the limit order for the option) Oracle closed at $19.48. After commisions and fees, I recorded 2.83% income on the transaction. On an annualized basis, that's 19.18%. If the option is assigned, I'll earn 4.47%, which is at least 24.53% annualized. For me, this is a win-win.

According to this calculator, the option was worth 62¢. I don't know if that's acurate or not, but it doesn't really matter to me. Option pricing models, such as the Black-Scholes model and the binomial options model, are interesting in the acedemic sense, but relying on them for actual options trading seems speculative. The problem with generic models is that they include volatility among their inputs. But the odds of a stock reaching a certain price are also influenced by the company's intrisic value and the probability of positive or negative news, which cannot be included in a generic model.

Writing a call option amounts to a soft sell of Oracle. I think $20 is a reasonable (though maybe low) selling price, but I'm not ready to put in a limit order. I also don't see any reason for the price to jump much higher in the next two months. Oracle Openworld, when Larry Ellison announced the company's Unbreakable Linux initiative, happened in October. There aren't many big aquisition targets on the horizon. I doubt the second quarter earnings release will be significantly better than expectations. In fact, given the persistent inverted yield curve, I suspect stocks in general will be flat at best.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Accounting for spin-offs

Now that the Sally Beauty spin-off has occurred, it's time to figure out how to account for it. Thankfully, Quicken has a spin-off transaction type. Unfortunately, it isn't entirely clear how it works. After fiddling with it for a while, I think I understand the accounting.

The first principle is that you received both the parent and the spun-off company (plus the dividend) on the day you bought the original shares. So on September 18, 2006 I bought Alberto-Culver plus Sally Beauty (plus the dividend) for $49.40 a share (and on October 23, 2006 for $49.24). The spin-off event has a retroactive effect on the original transactions.

Second, the cost basis for each company is determined by the market on the day of the spin-off. For the sake of simplicity, I'll use the opening prices, but I have seen the average of the day high and low used. I believe Alberto-Culver will file the official ratio to be used for tax purposes sometime soon. At any rate, New Alberto traded at $20.10 and New Sally traded at $7.35 (and the dividend was $25). For our purposes, I'm going to lump the dividend into the value of New Sally, because the dividend was paid for through the money Sally borrowed. Therefore, the ratio to use is Sally—61.68% and New Alberto—38.32%.

Third, a "Return of Capital" transaction on the date of purchase lowers the cost basis of the parent company by cost basis of the spun-off company. So for September 18, Sally Beauty was acquired for 61.68% of $49.40 or $30.47 a share. (And on October 23 for $30.37 a share.) Therefore, Alberto's cost basis is reduced by the same amount.

Fourth, the dividend is recorded as a return on the Sally Beauty investment. Currently, Sally trades for $8.51 a share, which is quite a bit lower than my original cost. But when you add in the $25 dividend, those shares have returned about $3 each so far. Meanwhile, Alberto has gained a little over a dollar a share since I bought it.

I've been able to get my Yahoo portfolio to more or less work out, but it requires more faking since it doesn't properly account for dividends. I wish someone would provide a really useful online-portfolio tracking system.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sally Beauty (when issued)

Alberto-Culver shareholders approved the Sally spin-off on Friday and as of today Sally shares are being bought and sold on the "when issued" market. Since there is also a market for both new Alberto and old Alberto, it's now possible to find out what the market says about the breakup math: $25 (cash) + $7.50 (Sally) + $17.85 (Alberto) = $51.35

But it is still possible to buy old Alberto for around $50, so there is still time to take advantage of a market inefficiency. (Basically, index funds that track the S&P 500 need to sell Alberto before the index drops Alberto and replaces it with some other company.) Although I have a little more cash to invest, I'm holding back for when Sally Beauty trades on the open market and after I have received the $25 dividend. I still think Sally conservatively is worth 30% more than $7.50. I suspect that when the company releases financials, the conservative value will be even higher.

Many salons in the US resemble malls in the way they operate. Each beautician rents a "chair" from the salon and keeps any profit they earn above that. Besides the basic services like washing, cutting and styling hair, salons are also an outlet for high end hair and beauty products. These are products that you can't buy at Wal-Mart or drug stores, because the makers of those products (e.g. Paul Mitchell) are aiming for a "Professional" market. As a result, there is a distribution problem—how do manufacturers get their products into the hands of beauticians?

Enter Sally Beauty Supply and Beauty Systems Group. BSG sells only to beauty professionals and Sally sells both to the general public and (under the Sally ProCard program) to professionals. Wal-Mart, Target and drug stores are more or less locked out of Sally's market pretty much by definition. On the other end of the spectrum, it's difficult to imagine another company building or buying a distribution network that competes with Sally.

The one exception is Regis, which is consolidating the salon industry through expansion and acquisitions. As you might recall, Alberto's original plan was to spinoff Sally and merge it with Regis. That plan failed in large part because Regis suffered some operational setbacks that made the merger unlikely to succeed. Ultimately, however, product sales are likely to be merely a sideline in Regis's business. (Humberto Barreto wrote an interesting paper that uses the salon business as a modern example of Ricardian Rent Theory.)