How the Stock Exchange Works

I subscribe to the weekly newsletter, which highlights excellent representations of data. As the name suggests, is a community of artists and designers who make data beautiful and easy to digest. Periodically the community branches out of their typical info-graphics (pictures) and into videos. This week, they sent out an excellent video how the stock exchange works:


The Fiscal Cliff and Your Portfolio

With the fiscal cliff looming, someone must be making money out there as the bears rear their ugly heads. Expect investors to go back to the commodity market for a base as the US government looks unlikely to reach a compromise in the next few days. I’ve noticed higher volumes in several commodity stocks over the past 3 days as the push for a compromise reaches a climax. My pick is STTYF, a company called Sandstorm Metals and Energy, which I expect to move into the new year with momentum, especially if the United States heads over the fiscal cliff. Sandstorm Metals and Energy buys contracts with mines to add commodities like copper and silver to their balance sheet at a fixed price.

Sandstorm’s CEO, Nolan Watson, recently gave a great interview with Seeking Alpha that provides insight into the company’s potential from the horses’ mouth. Keep an eye on this penny stock in the coming days as we head toward yet another financial meltdown.

A Little Company with a better ROI than Berkshire Hathaway

For those of us who aren’t day traders, keeping your long positions in check should always be a priority. Deciding on a long position can be daunting – so much analysis and information is available for mutual funds and blue chip stocks that finally taking a position rarely comes without a feeling of relief. Any good long position will rise in value and yield a nice ROI for the shareholder. Two excellent investments are Berkshire Hathaway and a micro-finance company called Microplace (acquired by PayPal in 2006).

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway has delivered one of the best ROIs for decades. [Please note, any mention of Berkshire Hathaway in this article refers to BRK.B, which has a 1/1500 value of BRK.A. Both are forms of Berkshire Hathaway common stock.] Mr. Buffett certainly knows how to make his company look attractive at a glance. Berkshire is head and shoulders above other picks: a low beta of 0.51, unheard of earnings per share of $7073.35, and a as-low-as-you can get price to earnings ratio of 0.01. But what about the return? Between January 2002 and January 2012, shares have climbed 61%. An amazing gain, but the volatility of the past decade is hidden in this number. The biggest year-over-year gain for Berkshire during that decade was only 22%, and the biggest loss? -52%. Ouch. Average year over year return for BRK.B from 2002-2012 is a surprisingly modest 3.2%.

Microplace’s investment vehicles are a strategy that remains untapped to many investors. In a nutshell, investors can fund projects that help the world’s poor in four categories – rural areas, women, green, and fair trade. The initial investment is repaid at a set date and at a set return. Microplace must state the usual jargon about risk and that your investment may lose value, but as stated on their site,

“With the caveat that past performance is no guarantee, we’re proud to report that no issuers have defaulted on payments to MicroPlace investors since our inception in 2007.”

Since Microplace investments survived the chaos of the financial meltdown, investing in the world’s poor looks like the closest thing to a guaranteed investment as you can get. The return on investment for different funds ranges from 0.5% to 3.5% yearly.

Now that we’ve scratched the surface on Berkshire and Microplace, let’s compare them side by side in the following four categories: Access to investment, Investment Benefits, Risk, and Return.

Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B) Microplace
Access to Investment Highly Liquid Highly Illiquid
Investment Benefits Benefits BRK.B Shareholders Benefits those in Poverty
Risk Moderate Risk Low Risk
Return 3.2% Average YOY 3.5% YOY (4 year notes)

Access to investment: Berkshire Hathaway
Like any stock, BRK.B can be sold with a few clicks. Compared to any investment in Microplace that cannot be touched until the expiry date, Berkshire handily wins any liquidity comparison.

Investment Benefits: Microplace
Microplace is really a revolutionary way to invest and allocate your money, and is clearly the more socially-responsible way to bring in a return. Beyond the direct impact, consider the indirect impact – you’ll be able to stand above any wall-streeter at cocktail parties. Mentioning that your money is generating interest while helping women, fair trade, and other causes in countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, and Zambia is sure to turn heads. Everyone owns stocks – few people are directly invested in helping the world’s poor.

Risk: Microplace
As quoted earlier, Microplace has never been snubbed on any money it has distributed. For investors that means their returns come with very low risk. On the other hand, if you invested in Berkshire in January of 2008, in one year you would lose 52% of your investment. I would call that risky.

Return: Berkshire Hathaway
Surprisingly, Microplace can provide a more consistent yearly return on investment (3.5%) than a titan company like Berkshire Hathaway (3.2%). The 3.5% return at Microplace is only attainable through 4 year FINCA Microfinance Notes, yielding a total return of 12.8%. Most other Microplace investments are shorter term, with a lower ROI. Berkshire’s higher potential return gives Buffet’s company the nod in this category.

Full Disclosure: I have previously invested in both Microplace and Berkshire Hathaway.

Exelon Greenifies their Power Portfolio

Utilities have always sparked my interest due to their extremely low volatility. Exelon (EXC) for example, has a Beta of just 0.53, making it fluctuate only half as much as the market. The recovery from the crash in 2008 hasn’t been so kind to Exelon and other utilities as it has been to other industries. Since 2007 the industry a whole has been down an alarming 27%, leading some columnists and publications to remain bearish on the energy sector. However, with Exelon’s recent purchase of Constellation energy and their management of the acquired assets, I believe the current price of $37 to be undervalued.

In 2011, Exelon Corp agreed to merge with Constellation energy – another energy provider based in the northeast. The merger instantly made Exelon America’s largest utility, and added a number of new plants to their portfolio. On Monday, Exelon agreed to sell its stake in 5 California power plants gained from the acquisition to the Japanese IHI corporation for an undisclosed sum. On the surface this looks like it would provide a boost to Q3 earnings, but let’s jump into the details a little further. Out of the five power plants, two were coal-based and three were bio-mass. The combined capacity of all five plants is 70 Megawatts, which is enough to power around 50,000 California homes. However, compared to the 17,000+ MW capacity of their 19 Nuclear power plants, the sale to IHI corporation is a drop in Exelon’s bucket. The sale will of course add more revenue, which at this point has not been quantified.

On August 9th, Exelon sold three coal power plants in Maryland to for $400m. Another sale of assets acquired by Constellation – But let’s dig deeper. Selling coal plants will not only increase Exelon’s cash on hand, but greens their portfolio of power generating plants. Why is this important? States can sue utilities for increased emissions level from their plants. The majority of US power comes from coal plants, but even clean coal is considered quite dirty by environmental groups. Dirty power pollutants have seen tightening regulations in recent years. Under the Clean Air Act, all coal plants must comply with tough new emissions standards by 2014. Exelon wins in two ways with this sale – $400m in the company and investor pockets and less revenue lost down the road to EPA compliance measures.

For the fiscal year 2012, Exelon projects that they will earn between $2.55 and $2.85 per share. Analysts expect the company to reach $2.75 EPS. As with many utilities, a big portion of investor gains from taking a stake come from the dividend paid and not just fluctuations in the stock price. Exelon’s dividend is yield is a healthy 5.61%, greater than 89% of it’s electric utility peers. The company has a long history of consistent dividends which shows no signs of slowing. With Exelon realizing the gains of plant sales in Q3 and a strategy focused on green energy, expect their stock to outperform the market.

Full disclosure: I currently have a stake in Exelon Corporation. I do not plan sell shares or buy any additional shares in the next 72 hours.

Angie’s List’s Steady Revenue Growth

Following the jobs report, Friday’s bull market propelled Angie’s List (ANGI) up nearly a full point to close just over $13. The stock has remained volatile and down overall from their IPO in November of last year, even as their revenue has slowly but surely increased by >10% each quarter.

As an emerging web-based company, the revenue growth is encouraging, but nowhere near the revenue growth of many other hot tech IPOs like Linkedin (LNKD) or Groupon (GRPN). Angie’s List offers access to verified reviews of local services like roofers, dentists, and child-care. The memberships options aren’t as cookie-cutter as one would expect, since the number and depth of reviews varies by region. If you work and live in two different cities for example, you may need to purchase additional access. The two founders, CEO Bill Oesterle and Angie Hicks, have both remained with the company since its inception in 1995, which can only be interpreted as a good sign. The duo has seen their service expand nationwide in the United States and Canada.

Expect Angie’s List to continue putting big money into marketing – currently 46% of their operating expenses – to continue their growth. That said, Angie’s List has still yet to turn a profit, but if the company can maintain their current growth, the current stock price could easily be a bargain. Until I see their margins move in a positive direction toward making a profit, taking a wait-and-see approach on this stock looks to be the best option. Waiting for their third quarter earnings will bring the company full-circle since their IPO, and should tell investors quite a bit about the outlook on this stock.

Full disclosure: I have pondered joining Angie’s List when I’ve needed to compare local businesses for odd-jobs, and I have no intention to take any position on ANGI in the next 72 hours.