Today, President Obama is expected to sign new legislation that will place limits on the fees and interest rates charged to consumers using credit cards (see WSJ article). While we can argue the benefits and unintended consequences of such legislation (doesn't it seem like we are using the term "unintended consequences" a lot lately), from a trading and investment perspective, there is an expectation that revenue generated by the fees and interest rates - which are now being scaled back - will begin to dry-up for many credit card companies. Subprime borrowers and others holding balances are the cash cows for credit card companies, given that those that don't really need credit tend to use the cards more for convenience, or as a way to gain points and a month of "free" float before paying off their balance in-full.

Estimates have the credit card industry losing $10 billion in revenue from overall interest income. In addition, companies such as Bank of America, Citigroup, Discover, and Capital One Financial are estimated to get between approximately 27-30 percent of their business from subprime customers. Others potentially hit by the new legislation include General Electric - the biggest issuer of private-label cards in the U.S., and Target, which issues its own cards to customers. Unfortunately, Citigroup also issues about 22 percent of all private label cards - not that they need another reason to lose revenue.

While the market still needs to shake out this latest development, it seems that taking away a large source of revenue, and making it more difficult for companies to price their risk, cannot be good for the credit card companies. The general impact on retail sales, increased costs to credit-worthy customers (annual and monthly fees), and the availability of credit for everyone, also seem to be things that cannot be ignored.

The announcement a few days ago by President Obama to increase fuel consumption by 2016 (see CNBC article) still has some scratching their heads, given the head-winds the automakers already face. Nonetheless, it is what it is, so you might as well start considering investment opportunities. A few days ago, Phil LeBeau, the CNBC Automotive Reporter, posted a nice article at his Behind The Wheel blog outlining a few companies that are poised to take advantage of the lower emission and higher fuel economy standards coming down the pike (see the post). The main idea behind the investment opportunities is that to lower emissions and increase mileage, cars will need to become lighter and/or more efficient. Five companies that could offer help in these areas include the following:

  • Alcoa (AA): positioned for the push for lightweight steel and aluminum, while still maintaining strength.
  • Borg Warner (BWA): maker of turbochargers that will give engines the desired performance while still providing for fuel efficiency.
  • Eaton (ETN): auto parts supplier who makes camshafts and valve trains that help improve combustion engine efficiency for existing non-hybrid/electric designs.
  • Honeywell (HON): for the same reasons as Borg Warner.
  • Magna International (MGA): leader in hydroforming, which allows parts, including body panels, to be lighter.
These companies have also been pumped on CNBC's Fast Money recently, causing them to run-up a little, although each are still off their 52-week highs (then again, who isn't). A few are also still consolidating somewhat after the October 2008 sell-off, allowing for some opportunity to move. Of course, in this economy and market, anything related to automakers has to be given pause and due diligence, but each is still worth a look.

In another example of "unintended consequences," some bond holders are beginning to avoid companies such as General Motors, after the recent moves by the Obama administration to short-change its creditors (see Bloomberg article). Companies with strong unions or extensive medical and pension legacy cost, similar to those at GM, may find it difficult in the future to obtain the funding they need from those labeled by the administration as "speculators". Even those that are still willing to lend will now do so only on their financing terms, which will most likely involve higher rates to compensate for the added credit risk each investor is now taking for the possibility of being "leapfrogged in a bankruptcy," according to those at Schultze Asset Management. In addition to the other automakers, including Chrysler and Ford Motor, companies such as AMR are also being shunned. The irony is that each of the car companies will probably be looking for financing in the future to help fund new energy efficient technology, such as hybrids and more efficient engines, yet they may find the terms offered in the markets unacceptable for making a profit. This of course will no doubt result in Joe tax payer once again making up the difference.

Just as the media and regulators continue to discuss the use of alternative investments and the active trading of hedge funds in contributing to the downfall of the economy and the stock market, many private investors are seeing each as a way to help protect themselves from recent market uncertainty (see New York Times article). While a more conservative trading mentality has been the norm for high net worth investors, many are now questioning its usefulness in the current market environment. Many investors who in the past have relied on a simple mix of stocks, bonds, and cash, and now turning to managed futures, financial futures, hedge funds, funds-of-funds, mutual hedge funds, currencies, commodities, and other avenues for gaining exposure to alternative investments.

Maybe even more interesting is how these same investors are becoming aggressive in moving away from a strict buy-and-hold approach, and instead are looking to take advantage of short-term trading opportunities - a move that indicates in part that such investors are not only opportunistic, but also worried about placing longer-term bets on the markets. As mentioned by Paul Speargas, senior client at WMS Partners:

“The buy-and-hold strategy, which was almost universally accepted by the investment and academic community over the past several decades, is no longer the sole investment strategy to be employed in order to deliver solid investment returns. A thoughtful balance between long-term investing and short-to-intermediate term trades is likely the recipe for investment success in the volatile years ahead.”
Given the interest by clients to still utilize hedge funds, commodities, futures, and alternative investments, not to mention the desire of the Fed and Treasury to have investors step-up and provide capital to purchase distressed assets, it might be good to pause and reflect before slapping or over-regulating the trading hands that are still willing to check the temperature of the investment waters.