Shake the Seeds of Doubt in Monsanto

by Joseph Hargett | June 25, 2013 9:11 am

Agricultural specialist Monsanto (MON[1]) is slated to release its fiscal third-quarter earnings report ahead of the open Wednesday morning amid a continuing storm of controversy.

While the company wasn’t even in the running for The Consumerist’s “Worst Company in the World” award[2] — which Electronic Arts (EA[3]) won for the second year running, by the way — Monsanto accomplished something poorly written software only dreams of achieving: a global protest in 52 countries and 436 cities.

But will the uproar over genetically modified seeds have any impact on Monsanto’s bottom line?

The company has had its ups and downs, but Monsanto is coming off two consecutive quarters of solid revenue and earnings growth. Furthermore, the company has topped Wall Street’s earnings expectations in nine of the past 10 reporting periods.

Looking at expectations this time around shows a bit of uncertainty from Wall Street. Analysts are expecting third-quarter earnings to fall to $1.61 per share from $1.63 per share in year-ago quarter, while revenue is seen rising to $4.42 billion from $4.22 billion last year. Even the whispers are quite on the Street, with reporting a whisper number in line with the consensus estimate.

That said, the brokerage community’s longer-term outlook is much more bullish. Specifically, Thomson/First Call reports that 18 of the 25 analysts following MON rate the shares a “buy” or better, compared to five “holds” and just two “sell” ratings.

While there is little room for ratings upgrades, there still is room for additional bullish sentiment from the analyst community. For instance, the consensus 12-month price target for MON rests at $120, or only about an 18% premium to the stock’s current perch near $102.

We find another split decision when we turn our attention to the options pits. Currently, MON sports 18,403 open call contracts in the front two months, compared to 18,363 open put contracts. The resulting put/call open interest ratio arrives at 0.99.

From a sentiment perspective, this parity in calls and puts ahead of an event such as earnings has bearish connotations. This is because options traders — much like the rest of market — typically have a bullish bias. As such, a skew toward put open interest suggests caution ahead of Monsanto’s quarterly report.

So, where are these cautious options traders placing their bets?

In the weekly June series, which expires at the end of the week, there are roughly 200 calls open at both the 105 and 110 strikes, while about 250 puts reside at both the 105 and 97.50 strikes. Backing out to the monthly July series, peak call open interest totals nearly 6,000 contracts at the out-of-the-money 110 strike, while peak put open interest numbers roughly 3,000 contracts at the out-of-the-money 95 strike.

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Technically speaking, there are a few key levels to keep in mind when trading MON. The stock is no slouch, gaining more than 9% so far this year, but MON currently is pinned between its 50-day (104.97) and 200-day (97.77) moving averages. The stock is hovering just above key psychological support at $100, while resistance emerges near $105 and $110.

Traders looking to get in on MON ahead of tomorrow morning’s report should also know that weekly June implieds are pricing in a post-earnings move of about 4.6% for the shares. This data places an upper bound near $104.66 and a lower bound near $95.34, and falls largely in line with the technical levels highlighted above.

With plenty of negativity and uncertainty surrounding MON heading into the event, the contrarian in me is leaning toward a short-term bull play on Monsanto. The logic is that all but the most negative news is already priced in, while any unexpected positive data could provide a more substantial boost.

Since it is always a good idea to hedge your bets, options traders looking to capitalize on this situation might want to consider the July 100/105 bull put spread.

At the close of trading last night, this spread was offered at $2.41, or $241 per pair of contracts. Breakeven lies at $102.41, while a maximum profit of $2.59, or $259 per pair of contracts, is possible if MON closes at or above $105 when July options expire.

As of this writing, Joseph Hargett did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

  1. MON:
  2. “Worst Company in the World” award:
  3. EA:

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