more on the Tokyo Electric Power nuclear plants in Fukushima

In my post on March 15th, I suggested that as the story of the failure of the Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) nuclear plants in Fukushima unfolds, there was a good chance we would find out that faulty construction or substandard maintenance, deliberately disguised from public view, would be revealed.  I didn’t expect, however, that it would happen so quickly.

Yesterday’s New York Times contains an article titled “Japan Extended Reactor’s Life, Despite Warnings.” It makes the following points:

1.  The #1 TEPCO reactor at Fukushima had reached the end of its useful life (it’s a GE plant that was installed in 1971), but was approved by government regulators last month for another ten years of operation.  This was done despite design deficiencies that have been corrected in later models and worries about the backup diesel power generators.

2.  Shortly after regulators granted the extension, TEPCO said it had failed to properly inspect the cooling systems at all of the six Fukushima reactors.

3.  At the same time as they were approving the extension, regulators were criticizing TEPCO’s failure to properly inspect or maintain all the reactors.

4.  In a 2003 scandal, it came out that TEPCO had falsified reactor safety inspection reports over a sixteen year period in order to avoid spending money on repairs.

5.  The article suggests, correctly, in my view, that the failure to enforce regulations stems in part from the Japanese practice of amakudari, meaning “descent from heaven.”  Jobs in the Japanese government bureaucracy offer very high prestige but relatively low pay.  Customarily, at the end of long careers, senior bureaucrats “descend” to high-paying positions in one of the companies whose industry they formerly regulated.  In the case of utilities, the best of such jobs wold be with TEPCO.

Since a job with TEPCO may well be your future “pension plan,” a regulator has got to be conflicted about how strictly to enforce the rules.  Also, it may be difficult to refuse the request of your former boss–who has retired to be come in effect a lobbyist for TEPCO–when he asks for a lenient interpretation of a regulation.

I’m sure this won’t be the last we’ll hear on this topic.

TIF: 4Q10, Japan, fiscal 2011 earnings outlook

the results

TIF reported fiscal 4Q10 (ended Jan 31, 2011) earnings before the market opening in New York yesterday.  Profits came in at $1.44 per diluted share, ex non-recurring items.  This compared favorably with analysts’ estimates of $1.39.

Full year results were $2.93.  That was better than the range of $2.83-$2.88 the company had guided to when it announced 2010 holiday sales in January.  Actuals were also almost 20% ahead of the range of $2.45-$2.50, that TIF management’s initial guidance for fiscal 2010, issued a year ago.

company guidance for 2011

On the earnings call, the company gave its first indication of prospects for fiscal 2011, a year in which TIF again expects significant growth.  Prior to the earthquake in Japan, a country that accounted for 18% of sales in 2010, TIF was planning to guide to eps of $3.35-$3.45 on sales growth of 15%-19%.

For the current quarter, 1Q11, the company had expected eps of $.62 per share, on flat sales in Japan. It is estimating that the negative effects of the earthquake on its business will mean a year on year decline of overall Japanese sales of 15% for the quarter–and a reduction of total corporate eps by $.05.  Given that its stores in northern Japan were closed last week and only opened this past weekend, TIF has only very limited information to project from.  As a result, it is, for the moment at least, retaining its pre-earthquake assumption of same store sales for the remainder of the year as being flat with 2010.

Analysts have penciled in $.55 for the April quarter.  Estimates range from $3.10 to $3.43 (a stupidly over-precise number, in my view) for the full fiscal year.

Japan

For decades Japan was the El Dorado of luxury goods markets.   Intense consumption of luxury goods by half the population and the willingness of buyers to pay prices 20%-40% higher than makers could change in their home markets are the reasons why.  Sales suddenly stopped in their tracks as recession hit in 2008, however–and haven’t bounced back.   Everyone has theories; no one knows for sure why. But this appears to be a permanent change in the market.

As a result, the game in Japan has changed for Western luxury goods manufacturers from one of aggressive expansion to one of maximizing profits and extracting capital if possible.  In today’s Japanese market the negative effects of the earthquake may require a temporary change in emphasis but not a change in (a very defensive) strategy.

TIF’s business in Japan can be divided into general areas:  Kanto (the Tokyo area) and points north; and the Kansai region around Osaka, farther south.  The former, which accounts for maybe 60% of TIF’s Japanese business, has been affected by the earthquake; the latter has not.

How should we interpret TIF’s forecast of a 15% decline in Japanese sales for 1Q11?  Let’s assume that the falloff comes completely from the north.  TIF says that Japan had been comping positive during the quarter until the earthquake.  Say that’s half the quarter.  For sales to be down by 15% for the entire quarter, sales have got to be down 30% for the second half of the period.  If that comes solely from Kanto and Tohoku, their sales must be down by 30%/.6 = 50%.  This strikes me as an excessively gloomy estimate.

This drastic falloff clips $.05 per share from earnings, according to TIF.  We’ll see whether down 15% is an accurate estimate or not.  But no matter what, TIF understands its own internal profit dynamics much better than anyone on the outside. So the relationship:  down 15% in sales = down $.05/share, is probably a very reliable one.

If conditions in Japan remain depressed for the remainder of fiscal 2011, TIF’s earnings will be $.35 lower than the company envisioned before the earthquake struck.  It’s possible in a very faddish place like Japan that a sympathetic abstinence from luxury goods spending affects everyone in northern Japan–whether touched by the earthquake or not–and lasts for a year. (In the early 1990s, for example, it was chic to be poor.  So bars that offered cow intestines (tripe) to eat sprouted up, enjoyed a year of success and just as quickly disappeared).  Anywhere else, that would be much too pessimistic.  I’d be tempted to have the sales figures fade back to normal (meaning same store sales growth of zero) in a linear fashion through yearend instead.  If so, the hit to fiscal 2011 eps would be around $.20.

factoring Japan into the TIF price

Whether the right number is $.40 or $.20 or $.60, the more important question is how an investor should factor this into the TIF stock price.  It seems to me that if the earnings loss from Japan is truly a one-time event, the proper way to account for it is to subtract $.40, or $.20, or $.60 from the stock price.  Knocking $8 off the share quote, which is what the Wall Street reaction has been, is in effect assuming that TIF’s business in Japan is permanently impaired and the lower earnings level will be a fact of life from now on.

I think that’s just wrong.

the rest of TIF’s business is booming

Asia ex Japan and Europe, which together make up about 30% of TIF’s sales, will likely be up by 25% or so.

Sales to distributors for Russia and the Middle East will probably be higher than that.

The US, which in all likelihood will be less than half of the company’s total for the first time ever, will rise by 10% or so.

The only sign of weakness in the world ex Japan is in lower-priced (under $500) items in the US.  For “macroeconomic” reasons, sales of silver jewelry are barely increasing.  I think this means that affluent customers who had traded down to silver during the recession have traded back up to higher-priced items.  (In fact, sales of diamonds–and especially TIF’s newly-introduced line of yellow diamonds–are very strong, as are fine and fashion gold.)  Less affluent customers, in contrast, reined in their silver purchases during the downturn and have not yet resumed buying at their normal rate.

the stock

TIF management is guiding to earnings of around $3.40 for this year, ex the Japan earthquake effect.  That’s probably too conservative.  Let’s say that $3.75 is a more realistic guess.  The negative effect of the Japan earthquake may have taken away that upside. But if the loss of Japanese business is indeed temporary, 2012 earnings per share growth is likely to be enormous–organic growth + Japan bounceback.  EPS is likely to be in the $4.50 range.

If we apply a 20x multiple to the $3.40 number for 2011, we arrive at a target price of $68 for this year.  If we apply 25x, which is arguably more appropriate for a global firm growing as quickly and steadily as TIF, we get $85.  At the current price of around $60, the multiple the market is assigning is 17.5x.

If we were to look out a year, a 20x multiple on $4.50 would be $90.

What do these calculations mean?  I interpret them as saying that in the current price the market is assuming the worst probable outcome for sales in Japan this year (the reality might be worse, but I don’t think the chances of that happening are high).  The market seems to also be saying that TIF’s Japanese franchise is permanently impaired.

This says to me that TIF’s stock has limited downside.  And, it’s possible that TIF could be trading as much as 50% higher a year from now, assuming a reasonable overall stock market and that business in Japan bounces back to its pre-earthquake level by 2012.

musings on 2012

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2012?!?

Yes, you’re reading the year correctly–2012.

Why so soon?  Two reasons:

First, stock markets around the world seem to me to be laser-focused on the here-and-now.  As a general rule, any successful investor has to have a perverse streak–the fact that everyone is doing one thing is prima facie a reason to set out in a different direction.  Besides, focusing exclusively on today and tomorrow is playing the day traders’ game.  Great for passing the day, great for your broker–bad for your portfolio.  The edge, if there is any (the evidence is that day traders in the aggregate lose money), in this game is with the guy who has the most advanced trading software or the itchiest trigger finger or, in today’s world, is co-located with the marketmaker.

That’s not me.  I don’t think it should be you either.  We should be working smarter, not harder.

2.  Some people are beginning to argue that what we are now experiencing is not a simple correction in an ongoing bull market, but rather the first signs of a fundamental change in the direction of the market to the downside.

Their argument starts with two suppositions:

–turmoil in the Middle East will intensify, resulting in significantly higher oil prices.  This, in turn, will create a substantial headwind to world economic growth;

–the earthquake/tsunami/ nuclear power plant disaster in Japan will tip that country into recession (it wouldn’t take much, since Japan is barely growing). That, by itself, will have a negative effect on world growth.   In addition, supply chain disruption caused by damage to manufacturing plants in Japan will create added problems for industry internationally.

Together, the argument goes, these two forces are enough to cause a fragile world economy to slide back into recession.  Down world economy implies down world markets.

Could this be right?

my thoughts

it’s normally too soon to be worried…

Typically, the market begins to turn to earnings prospects for the following year in June or July of the current one.  Until summer, the market usually concentrates on the details of this year’s profit performance and doesn’t worry much about anything farther into the future.

…but these aren’t normal times…

2010, of course, was by no means normal.  Last year, investors refused to look any more than a month or two ahead until September or October.  Only when the positive evidence from corporate earnings reports became overwhelming did the market grudgingly begin to concede the possibility that 2011 might be an up year for company profits.

Once stocks began to move up, however, they didn’t stop until they had discounted everything positive that might happen in 2011.  Very unusual behavior, but the reason I had been expecting a correction.  It’s just too soon, for any market–but especially for one that has been so skittish, to begin to discount possible 2012 earnings gains.

The bears might cheerfully concede that that’s how the downturn began a month ago.  But, they would claim, the Middle East + Japan have turned a correction into something fundamentally different.

…so maybe a long glance ahead makes some sense

Another factor to consider:  we’ve just passed the second anniversary of the start of the bull market.  This is just an early warning indicator of the maturity of the advance. Some bull markets, like the one that began in 1992, have lasted far longer than two or three years.  But we can’t rule out the possibility of a market downturn in the easy way we could have in 2010.

So, contrary to the way things usually, maybe–just to be safe–it makes sense to take a guess at what 2012 might be like.

my yearend 2010 view

My base case for 2011 made at the end of last year:

–earnings of $100 for the S&P 500, which might be a little aggressive,

–a multiple of 14x, maybe 15x if we’re lucky,

= an index target of 1400-1500 for the S&P.

a rough guess for 1012?:

–eps growth of 10%-15%, as economies gradually return to normal and short-term interest rates begin to rise,

–a multiple of 13x-14x on those earnings,

= a target of 1430-1610 on the S&P.

If those guesses were anywhere near the mark, it would imply that 1012 would be an up year, but with the market rising less than 10%.

what’s changed since then?

How do Japan and the Middle East change these figures?  I don’t feel comfortable putting down precise numbers for either.  But I think it’s safe to say that the entire negative effect, both in Japan and elsewhere, of the earthquake will occur in 2011.  This means 2012 will benefit not only from the absence (we hope) of a comparable negative event, but also from the positive stimulus coming from reconstruction efforts around Sendai,.

Similarly, the negative effect of higher oil prices, provided they stay within a reasonable distance of the present level, will be felt throughout most of 2011.  Absent comparable increases again in 2012, the negative effects will fall out of year over year comparisons by next March.

Consumer pain will be felt most intensely in the US, where low energy taxes mean that the percentage increase in prices will be larger than elsewhere and where consumers use mind-boggling amounts of petroleum products.  But, on the other hand, the US consumer is showing surprising strength, and is in the best position today to withstand the negative effect of more expensive oil.

my conclusion

I find that these thoughts are pushing me toward a conclusion that’s different from what I’d expected. Japan may clip a percent or so off S&P 500 earnings growth this year, but will add a similar amount next.  Higher oil prices may shave another, say, 2%, from S&P earnings growth in 2011 but have little effect on the 2012 tally.

In other words, the Middle East and Japan will end up making the growth rate of 2012 earnings over 2011 results higher than it otherwise would have been.  An S&P level above 1400 may therefore prove hard to surpass in 2011, but one of 1550–a 10% gain–looks easier to achieve in 2012.  By slowing down and stretching out the pace of economic recovery, Japan and the Middle East may make it more probable that the rebound stretches well into 2012.

post-earthquake supply disruptions from Japan

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It has only been a little more than a week since the devastating earthquake/tsunamis in Japan.  However, a lot more information about possible supply disruptions is available now.  As an investor, the main conclusions I see, based on what we know to date, are:

1.  Many of the disaster-affected plants that are sole sources for key components supply the auto industry.  A number of auto manufacturers have already announced that they may soon have to shut down either individual production lines or entire factories for lack of parts.  Although I’ve owned auto stocks from time to time, this is not an industry I’m particularly interested in or familiar with.  But one of the main reasons I’m not a fan is that the industry is characterized by chronic (and huge) overcapacity.  So far it doesn’t appear that there’s any one component in potential shortage that’s used in virtually every car in the world.  So the effect of plant closings will be market share shifts, not a shortage of cars or trucks.

2.  It’s possible that electric power will have to be rationed, at least in the Sendai area, for many months.  The Japanese government tendency is always to prefer industry over the consumer.  Public outrage over currency speculators who bid up the yen in the aftermath of the earthquake–they’re being described as criminals who exploit human tragedy, the moral equivalent of gangs that loot stores during a fire in the city–suggests there won’t be any popular opposition to this.  The practical questions for factories where the problem is power (not that the earthquake destroyed the machinery) will be how quickly power lines can be repaired and what the limitations of the Japanese power grid are in delivering electricity from other areas of the country. (I’m assuming that, as the latest reports are suggesting, the Fukushima reactor crisis is finally coming under control.)

3.  With one notable exception, the Japanese technology-related firms that have announced earthquake-related shutdowns make commodity products, like DRAM or NAND flash, where alternate sources of supply are available.  Prices may go up a bit but devices will still get made.

The one exception: bismaleimide-triazine  resin (BT), a compound used to glue semiconductor chips to printed circuit boards.  BT is used in all smartphones and tablets.  90% comes from Japan.  The largest producer, Mitsubishi Gas Chemical, which accounts for about half of what the tech industry uses, has shut down production due to earthquake damage.

The other major Japanese source of BT is Hitachi Chemical.  It’s plants are still operating.  But, according to the Financial Times, the BT made by different chemical companies isn’t simply interchangeable.  Output differs enough that at the very least a period of testing is required before you can use BT from another supplier. The Wall Street Journal says this process could take a month for most kinds of circuit boards.  For cellphones, though, because of their small size and the specific amount of heat a given chip may throw off, the entire design may need to be changed in order to accommodate a different flavor of BT.

But the main issue is there’s no way for the rest of the industry to double production overnight–which is what would be needed to keep cellphone production rolling along at the current clip.

Mitsubishi Gas Chemical will likely make an announcement about the extent of damage to its Fukushima BT plant in the next few days.  All we really know now is that production has been halted.

In the meantime, MGC customers are doubtless talking to Taiwanese and Korean suppliers of chemicals that they wouldn’t have given the time of day to a month ago.   And they may be seeing what they can do to get increased allocations from Hitachi Chemical (good luck with that).

The BT story bears close watching.  If MGC production isn’t restored soon, disruptions to the supply chains of phone makers whose products use the MGC output could be severe.  Pain will be felt not only by the phone manufacturers but by all their component suppliers, as well.

G-7 intervention to stop the yen’s rise: will it work?

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Will G-7 intervention work?

Yesterday, the G-7 group of major industrial countries announced plans for coordinated intervention in the foreign exchange markets in order to halt the rise of the yen against the currencies of other developed nations.  In the wake of last week’s earthquake and tsunamis, the yen had risen by about 5% against the dollar.  Will the G-7 be successful?

The short answer is “…most likely, no.”

How so?

The main reason is that the major international commercial banks, who are the main forces in the global currency markets, are far larger and have greater financial resources than national governments do.  That might not have been true twenty-five or thirty years ago, but it is today.  Even the G-7 nations acting together don’t have the financial firepower to oppose a concerted move by the banks.  In the past, it hasn’t helped either that governments have typically tried to defend currency values that were politically attractive but economically unsound.

Japan the most skillful government player

I’ve been watching the currency markets as a global investor for over twenty-five years.  Over that time, the country that, to my mind, has the best record in influencing the direction of its currency is the Japan.  Understanding it can’t oppose the banks directly, it has waited until a wave of speculation has almost exhausted itself and then applied enough pressure to send the yen in the opposite direction.

Japan’s present stance is a curious one, though.  The current administration in Tokyo, the Democratic Party of Japan, came into office with the intention of reversing the long-standing (and very outdated) policy of the Liberal Democratic Party of always aiming to weaken the yen in order to help the prospects of export-oriented industries.  Nevertheless, when the original DPJ finance minister tried to enforce the new policy, he was replaced with someone more willing to cater to the Keidanren.  The new minister immediately began selling the yen in what I saw as simply a wasteful attempt to establish his pro-industry bona fides.  That was Naoto Kan, who is now the prime minister.  Who knows what he’ll do now.

A second curious aspect of the situation today is that there’s no good reason for the yen to be a strong currency.  The country’s workforce is shrinking.  The government is ineffective and heavily in debt.  The budget is in deficit.  And the country hasn’t shown any real growth in over twenty years.  Japan’s most “positive” feature  vs. the euro or the dollar is that it’s a known quantity and has less near-term potential for negative economic developments than the EU or the US.

Why has the yen been rising, then?  After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Japan repatriated large amounts of money invested abroad.  Insurance companies needed funds to pay claims.  Parties–individual or corporate–who had no third-party insurance needed money to rebuild.  this activity drove the yen up by about 20% against the dollar in the months following the earthquake.  It’s probably too soon for this to be happening again.  The yen probably started to rise early this week as speculators began to bet the same thing would happen again.

Interestingly, the yen gave back almost all its gains as soon as the G-7 announced its plans and Tokyo was seen selling the yen aggressively in the currency markets.  To me, this suggests that the big players in the market haven’t decided what to do yet.  In the end, though, it will be the banks, not the G-7, that decide whether the yen strengthens or not.

investment implications

What’s the significance of a rise in the yen for investors?

An appreciating currency has two effects:

–it slows economic growth in local currency terms, and

–it reorients what economic energy there is–away from export-oriented industries, and toward domestic-oriented firms and importers.

If you were investing in Japan and thought the yen would rise, you would overweight domestic firms and underweight exporters and other companies with large foreign-currency exposure.  But the most sensible thing for most people to do, as I suggested a couple of days ago, is just to stay away.  (I own two social networking stocks in Japan, DeNA and its smaller competitor, Gree.  For now, I’m keeping them both.  These are youth-culture special situation stocks that are growing very fast, so I think they’ll be relatively unaffected by problems in the overall economy.  But I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow my lead.)

pension consultants and placement agents: the CalPERS report

the situation

Imagine you’re a global equity portfolio manager.  You have a top quartile record over virtually any period during the prior ten years.  In fact, there’s no one in the US, and only one in the EU, who can equal or better your numbers.  You have presentation skills polished by intense preparation by experts both inside and outside your firm, as well as your many hours of practice.

You visit a pension consultant in Connecticut.  You show him your numbers, make your presentation, and await his comments.

He has only two:

–your presentation skills are terrible.  Before he can recommend you to any clients, you must take a remedial course from his firm.  It costs $25,000.

–he’s not sure you know enough about foreign markets.  The only way he can gain the confidence he needs is if you subscribe to his firm’s international information service.  He shows you the latest copy.  It’s a worthless collection of news clippings–superficial, and weeks behind what your own information network provides.  It costs $50,000 a year.

Summary:  despite the fact your record is better than that of anyone he is currently recommending to clients (who are, incidentally, paying him large amounts of money to do manager searches for them), those clients will only hear your name if you agree to make an upfront payment (read: bribe) of $75,000 and agree to continuing payments of $50,000 a year.

We decline.

Welcome to the Realpolitik of pension consulting.

the CalPERS report

The consultant I’ve described lacks finesse.  It would be more common for a pension manager to agree buy analytic services from a consultant, who would examine the manager’s product offerings for their potential attractiveness to customers.  Paying the consultant to come to your offices and spend time digging through your products will not only give the consultant the knowledge of your products that might otherwise take five years of you visiting him to impart.  But it might engender a feeling of obligation as well.

The biggest weapon in the consultant’s arsenal, however, is his control over the types of products he will recommend that his client buy.  They will be all highly specialized, offering the maximum potential for the consultant to “add value” by applying asset allocation services to the individual pieces a given asset manager sells, thereby customizing a portfolio.

CalPERS wouldn’t see the sometimes seamy interaction between manager and pension consultant.  But that’s small potatoes compared with what the consultant earns by selling manager selection and asset allocation services.

None of this is mentioned in the just-released CalPERS investigative report on placement agents and consultant services.  In fact, the part about consultants is much like the amuse bouche in a five-course meal.  What the report says is this:

1.  Somehow, while it continued to pay pension consultants as neutral third-parties to find managers and monitor performance, CalPERS ended up hiring the same organizations as money managers, as well.  Talk about the fox guarding the chicken coop.

CalPERS has finally worked out that, in addition to not being a sound action from a fiduciary standpoint, this is a no-win situation for it.  If the performance is outstanding (and my casual reading suggests it isn’t), there’s still the blatant conflict of interest.  If it’s poor, there isn’t even a pragmatic justification for the breach of prudent behavior.

2.  The big issue in the report, though, is placement agents.  These are well-connected individuals who sold their privileged access to CalPERS management for tens of millions of dollars in fees paid by third-party money managers, some of whom gained CalPERS as a client.  This appears to have happened predominantly in CalPERS alternative investment and real estate areas.

The report of the investigation, lead by law firm Steptoe and Johnson, LLP, is a carefully crafted document.

The authors point out that they received “universal and unlimited cooperation”  only from CalPERS and its current employees, less than that from others.   Some relevant people, notably former CalPERS CEO Fred Vuenrostro and former board member Alfred Villalobos, refused to cooperate entirely (understandably, perhaps, in the case of the named individuals because the report notes both are defending themselves against charges brought by the California Attorney General).

As I read it, the report makes several, not entirely consistent, points about the attempts of several of CalPERS key alternative investment managers to buy influence through Villalobos and Vuenrostro:

a.  CalPERS lost no money (not relevant from an economic point of view, but likely a key point under state securities laws)

b.  the main operational failure was on the part of the board of directors in not reining Villalobos and Vuenrostro in, and in some cases, aiding their influence-peddling efforts; the staff of CalPERS consistently resisted unwarranted pressure from Vuenrostro to select certain managers or not negotiate fees diligently

c.  nevertheless, the report also cites the case of the former head of CalPERS’ alternative asset arm, who appears to have accepted inappropriate favors from Apollo Global Management, while CalPERS was negotiating to buy a stake in Apollo

d.  in addition, many of the third-party managers who paid a total of $180 million to placement agents, Apollo Global Management, in particular, remain among CalPERS’ “most trusted external managers.”

e.  again, despite the contention that the staff of CalPERS acted entirely appropriately, the report also says that four alternative asset managers, Apollo, relational, Ares and CIM, “agreed to a total of $215 million in fee reductions for CalPERS.”

my thoughts

At least this behavior is out in the open.

To me, the conclusions in the placement agent part of the report don’t add up.  It may be, however, that CalPERS is so deeply entwined with the alternative asset managers who paid placement agents all that money and who overcharged the agency by close to a quarter billion dollars that it isn’t able to extricate itself.  So it has decided to make the best of a bad situation.  We’ll probably find out more as pending lawsuits wend their way through the legal system.

I’ve updated Current Market Tactics

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I’ve just updated Current Market Tactics.  If you’re on the blog, you can also click the tab at the top of the page.