The bell does go off. The signal is sounded. You get an all-clear.
The problem is that the bell goes off late, the signal blasts after the fact, and the all-clear is all clear for those who hesitated and are lost.
I know these sentiments are always with investors, including today, when there are so many cross currents. I just want to spend some time explaining what may be the most mystifying part of this whole business, the notion that the biggest opportunities come long before the bell, the siren, the klaxon or whatever the heck else you are waiting for before you pull the trigger to buy.
What got me thinking of this is last night's Texas Instruments (TXN) earnings call. I would like to think I know more about the stock of Texas Instruments than just about anybody.
In fact, at one point I was addicted to Texas Instruments during the day that it and Motorola used to swing four, five, six points a session.
I was studying for the New York Bar Exam while I lived in a country house near Westport, Connecticut. Every day I would commute to Grand Central to get to cram classes for the test. In the middle of Grand Central at the time was a Merrill Lynch quote machine. Not far was a payphone. I was always jonesing for Texan as we called it, trying to find a good entry point in the stock of the company that really popularized basic semiconductors.
Here's what I discovered. The stock of Texas Instruments seemed totally divorced from the company of Texas Instruments. Texas Instruments was kind of like the Biblical reference to the jubilee year, it was that or famine. But the stock never reacted to the jubilee. When I was at law school and I traded in my dorm, I would always get my head bashed in by Texas Instruments because I kept hearing all of these good things about it.
I would go over to the Harvard Business School and read research from firms long since gone that would tell me that Texas Instruments was in the sweet spot, so I figured the cost was clear.
I am not one of those insane people who think that if you keep doing the wrong thing it will eventually turn out to be right.
Instead I decided to go back in time and look when Texas Instruments' stock would make its biggest move.
A couple of quarters into a downturn, that's when. You had to pounce when things were ugly. For me that meant buying call options out three months after checking with that ticker machine in the center of Grand Central Terminal.
It used to drive people crazy. I would hit up TXN and then get the price, if it were down, go run to the phone both - mind you this was 1984 - and buy five or 10 calls.
Suffice it to say I paid for my share of that summer house with Texas Instrument calls because I waited two quarters into a downturn. My only regret? That I didn't start buying calls a little bit earlier.
Last night Texas Instruments reported and it talked about how it had just completed two quarters of decline and typically there would be four or five quarters of declines before there would be a turn in the cycle.
Last night when we saw the earnings the stock popped six bucks. But by the time Rafael Lizardi, the chief financial officer, gave his supposition that it was too early to call an all-clear, the stock got crushed. It gave up all six points and then some.
To me that was the seminal Grand Central Merrill Lynch quote machine moment to buy calls on Texas Instruments because if you waited until the cycle actually turned you were way too late. Yet lots of people dumped the stock because they need verification from the company itself. I say that's darned silly. The managers at Texas Instruments aren't trying to get you to time the cycle, for heaven's sake, they are trying to run the darned business and they are two different, often antithetical things. Oh, and for the record, Analog Devices (ADI) trades with TXN, so you've being given a twofer.
I can't tell you how many times people want the siren to go off so they can buy a stock. Consider Apple (AAPL) . About 60 points ago, Tim Cook was telling us that the best days are ahead of the company. At the same time we were learning about the intense spat between Apple and Qualcomm (QCOM) about royalties.
We didn't know how that would go. Too hard to tell. But one thing we did know: Apple did not want to be late for 5G. If Qualcomm lost the suit they would have to sell Apple all of the 5G chips it needed just to pay the bills. If Qualcomm won, well, it would own Apple and hold it hostage.
Lost in all of this, though, was the fact that Apple did not have a credible 5G game plan without Qualcomm. The thing that would hold the company up would be a lack of a competitive product. That meant you could not hold onto Apple because you may have missed the 5G cycle. Not the iteration. Not the refresh. But the actual cycle.
Here's the issue: you absolutely could make seven points if you waited until Qualcomm and Apple settled.
But the big money would have been made before the klaxon. You had to buy Apple knowing that it would have to come to terms someday with Qualcomm in some fashion to be able to compete with Huawei and Samsung. You just had to jump before the deal was sealed.
Some are real hard. Did you want to wait until Bob Iger told you how amazing Disney's (DIS) new Fox-related offering, including its over the top service, were going to be before you bought. I said you had to buy some ahead because the stock had been languishing for ages awaiting the promise of the new plan. If you bought ahead you paid about $110. If you waited until the all-clear? Well $130 was more like it.
And some? You just don't know. I keep waiting for Steve Tusa, the excellent JP Morgan analyst who covers General Electric (GE) , to sound an all-clear. Getting a lot of crickets on that one.
I thought it would be worth it to buy Home Depot (HD) for the charitable trust, which you can follow along by joining the Action Alerts PLUS club, ahead of the spring selling season. Dicey. If we got a frost I would be a loser. You had to take the chance. If you did after the so-called shortfall, you crushed it.
Finally there's Chipotle (CMG) . After all of those nasty incidents with health issues, some thought that it would never come back. We knew that the American people tend to remember these illnesses for 18 months and after that you are home free. That judgment made you more than 300 points. If you waited for the same store sales numbers to turn you made about a third of that.
It's not the early bird gets the worm. It's the smart bird attuned to when cycles turn, that gets the worm. The rest? They get the droppings.