4 Steps To Scoring Bargains During The Shutdown

Remember the summer of 2011? Warren Buffett sure does. He continues to speak of the sharp market sell-off in late July and early August, and how he was a very active buyer on Aug. 8, 2011, when stocks were “capitulating.” Washington was a mess, which he saw as a time to buy.

Just a few weeks later, the market still appeared to be in trouble, and it would be several months before the market seemed stable. But in hindsight, it was an awfully good buying opportunity.

With the market once again in a Washington-induced freefall, is it time to take a page from the Buffett playback? Not quite. You’ll know we’ve arrived at a monumental buying opportunity if the markets plunge hard, and not just 1%, as has been the case on some recent days.

Still, investors should be making the most of this time, identifying a “wish list” of ideal stocks. Here’s the tried-and-true playbook that has been in use during past periods of market turmoil.

1. Look at the lows.
Some stocks were already experiencing headwinds even before the current fiscal crisis took root, and with the nudge of a falling market, now trade at 52-week lows. For example, the slowing consumer-spending environment, which was already being felt by many retailers, has created fresh waves of selling in already beaten-down names.

Consumer-facing stocks making 52-week lows this week include:
  • Tumi Holdings (NYSE: TUMI)
  • Carnival Cruise Lines (NYSE: CCL)
  • American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO)
  • Body Central (Nasdaq: BODY)
Look for the list of fresh 52-week lows to expand in coming days, which should serve as a good source of research.


2. Watch the buybacks and insiders.
If history is any guide, we’re going to be seeing a lot of stock buyback announcements in coming weeks in tandem with earnings season. Companies tend to do this when their stock prices slump but their fundamental business outlooks have not changed.

In a similar vein, focus on stocks that already have big buybacks in place, as they will tend to have more share price support in a deeper market downdraft as their buying efforts offset selling pressures. (I recently looked at some of the currently most active stock buyback participants.)

This is also a good time to keep track of insider buying, which can be seen as another way of executives saying “Our business is holding up well.” I took a look at some recent insider moves, but I would add the caveat that even stocks with strong insider buying can still fall as deeply as others. (In this respect, big buyback programs tend to provide more downside protection than insider buying efforts.)


3. Spend extra time on conference calls.
The timing of this current market sell-off is fortuitous, as companies can deliver a real-time perspective on any impact the fiscal crisis may be having. As my colleague Michael J. Carr noted recently: “If companies deliver strong reports, stock prices should be able to withstand the shutdown. If earnings disappoint, that will push stocks down even though the headlines will continue to talk about the shutdown.”

My guess: You’ll be seeing a mixed picture, with some companies noting little impact. And if their share prices slump in tandem with the broader market, then you should be prepared to pounce. Any buying window that is now open might quickly close once Washington goes back to work.


4. Focus on beta.
Depending on your mindset, you can use this market slump in a defensive or offensive manner. For investors that want to protect against deeper downside, focus on stocks with a very low beta. That includes utilities and consumer staples stocks such as Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB) and others.

I prefer to use this time to focus on high-beta stocks, as they are more likely to plunge at a relatively faster pace as the Washington crisis continues. These high-beta stocks surely carry further downside risk if the market really falls out of bed, but they are also likely to post sharper gains once the crisis officially ends.


5. Run your screens.
This is a good time to seek out sectors and industries that sport below-market multiples. For example, many industrial stocks trade for 10 to 12 times projected profits, and in some instances, multiples are moving below 10. In light of the fact that the U.S. economy still appears poised for a cyclical rebound over the next few years, these companies should post solid sales and profit gains in the years ahead.

I also always focus on stocks that fall below tangible book value. Many insurance stocks offer up this kind of value. I focused on a range of below-book insurers a few months ago, and many of them still remain below tangible book value now.

Risks to Consider: The market is still nicely in the black on one- and three-year bases, so investors may collectively decide to lock in whatever profits they currently have, creating fresh waves of selling pressure.

Action To Take –> To revisit Buffett’s buying lesson from 2011, we may still be in the early phase of a Washington-induced market swoon. That’s why it’s wise to only start nibbling at emerging values — but if the crisis continues, fresh waves of bargains will emerge. Use these guideposts to track where those opportunities are emerging.

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