Some Caveats On The Retail Recession

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

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Last week was all about the big department stores – Macy’s (M), Kohl’s (KSS) and Nordstrom’s (JWN) – and their sales failures.  This week is all about a number of retailers who have been doing quite well up until now and who will release earnings reports this week and next.

Let’s start with the discounters, TJ Maxx (TJX) and Ross Stores (ROST), who we will hear from later this week.  In February, TJX reported 5% comparable store sales for the year ended Jan 30, 2016 and forecast a 1-2% increase for the coming year.  The stock is near all time highs.  They will report 1st quarter results Tuesday morning.

The story at Ross Stores (ROST) is similar.  Comparable stores were up 4% for the year ended Jan 30, 2016 and they forecast a 1-2% increase for this fiscal year.  The stock is near all time highs.  ROSS will report 1st quarter results Thursday after the close.

Second, let’s consider the home improvement retailers, Home Depot (HD) and Lowe’s (LOW).  HD reported 5.6% comparable store sales growth for the year ended Jan 31, 2016 and forecast 3.7%-4.5% for the current year.  HD stock is trading near all time highs.  They will report 1st quarter earnings Tuesday morning.

Lowe’s (LOW) reported a 4.8% increase in comparable stores for the year ended Jan 29, 2016 and forecast a 4% increase for the current year.  LOW stock is trading near all time highs.  They will report earnings on Wednesday morning.

Beauty retailer Ulta Cosmetics (ULTA) is on fire.  Comparable store sales increased 11.8% for the fiscal year ending Jan 30, 2016 and ULTA forecast an 8-10% increase for this fiscal year.  The stock is near all time highs.  They will report 1st quarter earnings next Thursday (5/26) after the market close.

Finally, Amazon (AMZN) continues to take share from brick and mortar retailers.  For the quarter ended Mar 31, 2016, AMZN reported a 28% increase in revenue.  The stock is at all time highs.

One can therefore ask: Is retail really in recession as I claimed last week?

First, I realized my own confirmation bias in last week’s terrible reports and wanted to counteract that.

Second, another thing I noticed in studying these companies that are doing well is how much they are borrowing to buy back stock.  Financial engineering abetted by low interest rates is playing a big role in squeezing EPS higher.  HD bought back $7 bil in stock in each of the last 2 years, lowering their diluted share count by 4.7% last year.  LOW bought back $3.9 bil in each of the last two years, lowering their diluted share count by 6.2% last year.  HD issued about $6 bil and LOW $3 bil in long term debt over the last 2 years to partly help finance these buybacks.

Third, valuations for these high performing companies are quite high.  HD, TJX and ROST are all trading at multiples of forward earnings in the low 20s and LOW is at 19x.  AMZN, of course, is barely profitable and remains a conundrum.  ULTA trades at about 35x forward earnings.

The next couple weeks will tell us quite a bit about the consumer and if last week’s earnings report were merely company specific or represent broader economic weakness.

Greg Feirman

Founder & CEO

Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)

A Registered Investment Advisor

Bay Area, CA

(916) 224-0113

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Retail Recession

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

The big retailers are starting to report 1st quarter earnings and the results are not pretty.

It started with Macy’s (M) on Wednesday morning.  Macy’s reported a 5.6% decline in same store sales, its worst since the 2nd quarter of 2009.  Macy’s also lowered full year guidance from $3.80 to $3.90 to $3.15 to $3.40.  Macy’s stock is now down more than 50% from the middle of 2015.

Continuing the negative news parade was Kohl’s (KSS), which reported a 3.9% decline in same store sales on Thursday morning. Diluted earnings per share of 31 cents were down more than 50% from the 63 cents reported in the year ago period.  Kohl’s chart looks similar to Macy’s with shares down more than 50% from early 2015.

Finally, Nordstrom (JWN) reported an ugly quarter after the close on Thursday.  EPS of 26 cents missed estimates for 46 cents and were down 60% from the 66 cents reported in the year ago period.  Nordstrom’s also reduced full year EPS guidance from $3.10 to $3.35 to $2.50 to $2.70.  Nordstrom’s stock chart shows the same pattern peaking in early 2015 and now down more than 50% from those levels.

I bring these earnings reports to your attention for a couple of reasons.  First, these kinds of stock charts support my belief that we are in a stealth bear market that began in 2015.  While some stocks make new highs, like Facebook (FB) and Amazon (AMZN), the market’s leadership is increasingly thinning out.

Second, I want to reiterate my point that the Federal Reserve’s policies are enormously regressive.  That is, they help those who own financial assets such as stocks and real estate while doing nothing to stimulate the real economy and those in the middle and lower classes who depend on earning income from their work.  These policies are creating increasing inequality with the wealthy, on the one hand, and those who serve them through low paying service jobs, on the other.  No wonder Macys, Kohls and Nordstroms are suffering.  Their core market, especially for the former two, is the shrinking middle class.  (In addition, Amazon continues to take share from brick and mortar retailers).

Greg Feirman

Founder & CEO

Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)

A Registered Investment Advisor

Bay Area, CA

(916) 224-0113

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Living On Borrowed Time

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

Investing successfully is hard because it is complex.  Dictionary.com defines complex as “composed of many interconnected parts”. Another way of saying the same thing is that there are many variables that go into investment outcomes.  Or again: the investment world is a complex system.

There are the fundamental factors of any given company.  There are the macroeconomic factors involving government policy.  There are psychological factors involving crowd psychology.  I believe these are the main ones but others could be added.  The art of investing involves blending and weighting all of these factors into a balanced and synthesized outlook.

Because investing is complex, many want to simplify it.  For example, value investors like Warren Buffett argue that the only thing that matters is company specific fundamentals.  It certainly would make things simpler if this were true.  However, value investors routinely get destroyed in bear markets because of their failure to take account of macroeconomics.

Indeed, Buffett’s mentor Ben Graham was caught wrongly positioned by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.  Similarly, Bill Miller’s reputation was destroyed by the housing bust and ensuing Great Recession.  Buffett has been able to weather the storms partly due to luck and partly due to his longevity.  He was lucky to start his first investment partnership in 1956 in the midst of the great postwar boom.  And his longevity has masked many of his mistakes.

Let’s get concrete.  I have said many times on social media that Facebook (FB) is the best stock in the market.  They proved this again the other day when they reported first quarter earnings with revenue growth of 52% and EPS growth of 83%.  The company is quite simply on fire; it is in the sweet spot of its growth cycle.

Yet I sold Facebook (FB) last year!  Why?  Because fundamentals are only one part of the equation.  My interpretation of the macroeconomics and psychological components of the market have convinced me that we are in a stealth bear market.  By “stealth”, I mean that this will only be realized in retrospect by the majority of investors.

Let’s get concrete again.  On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve decided to hold interest rates constant at ¼ to ½ percent.  Despite massive quantitative easing and low interest rates around the world, governments can’t seem to generate real economic growth.  The headlines of today’s Wall Street Journal read “US Growth Starts Year In Familiar Rut” and “Earnings Skid Is Worst Since Crisis”.   In this environment, “it’ll be hard to get a whole lot of corporate profit growth.  It’s hard to get really bullish”, said Joe LaVorgna, chief US economist at Deutsche Bank.

In other words, Facebook is sailing against the wind.  While it produces amazing growth in a stagnant environment, more common are companies like industrial bellwethers 3M (MMM) and United Technologies (UTX) which are each forecasting 1-3% organic sales growth for 2016.

Further, neither of these stocks are cheap for the growth.  3M trades at 20x its 2016 forecast of $8.10-$8.45 EPS.  UTX trades at 16x its 2016 forecast of $6.30-$6.60 EPS.  I don’t want to pay those kinds of prices for meager growth.

I have recently been reading Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back.  Henry Hazlitt was a great economic popularizer of the 20th century and his works are among the best introductions to economics around.  In this novel, Hazlitt imagines that the USSR won the Cold War.  All the world went socialist.  All the means of production are owned by the State.  The government allocates resources to managers and assigns people to jobs.  All economic freedom has been extinguished.  The works of the great economists, excluding Marx, have been destroyed.  As a result, the world is in economic decline.

It is the challenge of the hero, Peter Uldanov, who becomes economic dictator, to solve the economic problem.  In a series of Socratic dialogues with his subordinate Adams, Uldanov puzzles over the failures of WonWorld and what reforms he might institute to ignite its economy.  Ultimately, he rediscovers the importance of incentives and capital, among other things.

On incentives, he realizes that people need to see some direct relationship between the work they do and the reward they receive.  When everybody is working for everybody else, nobody has the motivation to work hard or innovate.  That’s because whatever difference he can contribute to overall production is so small that his own reward is proportionately so.  Similarly, Uldanov discovers that the quantity and quality of capital that people work with is key to their productivity.

Why do I bring this up?  Because we live in a world where the government has gotten everything backwards.  They are trying to stimulate economic growth by printing money, rather than stimulating production.  As a result, they are enriching those who own financial assets like stocks, bonds and real estate, impoverishing those who do not and creating cascading asset bubbles that inevitably burst.  “We’re living on borrowed time”, John Thornton, former President of Goldman Sachs, recently said.

Many sophisticated investors understand the situation.  However, most do not.  Most simply go along with the crowd, believing that everything is okay as long as everybody else thinks so.  This conformity and reflexivity has been firmly embedded into market psychology over the last 30 years, abetted by government policies aimed at keeping things from falling apart rather than addressing the core issues.

This is why I am almost 100% cash.  Almost because I still maintain small positions in gold via GLD and GDX.  Gold is another one of those things that is fundamentally misunderstood by the majority.  In fact, the majority make fun of those who own gold, ridiculing its performance and its adherents as “gold bugs”.  What they fail to understand is that the entire economic system is built on the division of labor which depends for its smooth functioning on a stable medium of exchange.  Gold has been money for most of history precisely because it suited this purpose.  In the current environment, it is insurance against the monetary adventures of the world’s central bankers.

Greg Feirman

Founder & CEO

Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)

A Registered Investment Advisor

Bay Area, CA

(916) 224-0113

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This Is How It Begins

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

Welcome to 2016!  Almost three weeks into the New Year and the stock market is acting horribly.  The S&P is already down more than 8%.  In my opinion, things will continue to get worse.  In my last two Client Notes, “Big Trouble” and “The Difference Between Market Tops and Bottoms”, I forecast an emerging bear market.  In fact, I believe there is a substantial possibility that we are already in a bear market and that the peak occurred 6 months ago in July 2015.

Consider some of the technical evidence.  More than 50% of the S&P 500 is already down more than 20% from all time highs.  More than 40% of NYSE traded securities (1395 out of 3225) hit new 52 week lows on Wednesday.  Volume on the NYSE has exceeded 5 billion shares in 5 of the last 6 trading days, including more than 6 billion on Wednesday.  I can’t remember one 5 billion share day last year.

Second, the railroads are already in a recession.  CSX, a $20 billlion market capitalization East Coast railroad operator, reported volume dropping 6% and pricing 7% in the 4th quarter leading to a 13% revenue decline year over year.  Union Pacific (UNP), a $60 billion market capitalization railroad operator which dominates the Midwest and West, reported a 9% drop in volume and an almost 8% drop in pricing leading to a more than 15% decline in revenue in the 4th quarter compared to the year ago period.  UNP is down more than 40% from its peak a year ago.

Finally, the Fed is in a tough position.  Having just raised interest rates for the first time in a decade in December, it will be a process for them to reverse course and start stimulating the markets again.  By the time they do, massive damage may already have been done.

Fortunately, we have dodged this entire meltdown since I have been essentially 100% cash for 5 months now.

Greg Feirman

Founder & CEO

Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)

A Registered Investment Advisor

Bay Area, CA

(916) 224-0113

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Bad Breadth

July 23, 2015 at 4:51 am  ·  Category: Technical Analysis, Top Gun Financial Planning

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

I noticed something strange with the market internals on Friday and Monday.  Even though the S&P squeezed out new highs, breadth was quite poor.  Declining stocks outnumbered advancing stocks 2040 to 1011 on Friday and 2122 to 1030 on Monday on the NYSE.

This divergence between the overall averages and the market internals caught my attention.  It gelled with something I had been noticing.  Many stocks that I follow have been performing poorly even though the overall averages are keeping up.  For example, United Rentals (URI) and Viacom (VIAB) are two underperformers I sold recently after they peaked out a few months ago and have been mostly straight down since then.

A look at the cumulative NYSE Advance-Decline line shows this trend started 3 months ago.  Breadth is very important so let me take a minute to explain what this chart shows.  Every day a certain number of stocks advance, a certain number decline and a certain number are unchanged.  For example, today (Wed 7/22), 1329 securities on the NYSE advanced, 1839 declined and 86 were unchanged, according to the WSJ’s Market Data Center.  Decliners outnumbered advancers by 510.  Therefore, breadth for today was -510.  The cumulative NYSE Advance-Decline line starts at 0 at a certain point in time, in this case one year ago, and then sums each days breadth onto the cumulative total moving forward.

What this charts shows then, importantly, is that more stocks are declining than advancing over the last 3 months.  This can be so even though the market averages are hanging in there due to differences in market capitalization.  The S&P 500 is a market cap weighted index so a few big stocks can carry the index and mask underlying weakness – which seems to be exactly what is happening.

Breadth is a very important market internal because it shows how broad participation in a move is.  In this case, participation is not as strong as a bull would like it to be.  This is just another reason I am increasingly cautious on this aging bull market and starting to take profits.

Greg Feirman
Founder & CEO
Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)
A Registered Investment Advisor
(916) 224-0113

Follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook and invest like me with Covestor!

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Some Things To Worry About

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

I find myself quite nervous about the stock market lately for a few reasons.

First, the S&P can’t seem to make any progress.  We are essentially flat for the last 5 months.

While some stocks such as DIS, SBUX and NKE continue to make new highs, other important leading stocks seem stuck in the mud such as GOOG, PCLN and FB.

Second, earnings growth is anemic.  The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that with 417 companies reporting, 1st quarter earnings growth for the S&P is 0.2%.  PCLN this morning reported anemic net income growth of 3%.  GOOG wasn’t much better at 5%.  FB’s EPS were up only 20% after 7 straight quarters of monster growth.

Third, we are late in this economic cycle.  While I expect the Fed to be gentle, it is likely they will raise interest rates at least once sometime this year.  It may not be until September but the monetary tailwind that has powered stocks will be diminishing somewhat.

For all these reasons I find myself tempted to cut our exposure to the market somewhat in the days and weeks ahead without doing anything drastically bearish.  Technically, this market is still strong and should be given the benefit of the doubt.  But more and more I find myself feeling anxious moving forward.

Greg Feirman
Founder & CEO
Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)
A Registered Investment Advisor
Bay Area, CA
(916) 224-0113

FOLLOW ME ON Twitter, LIKE ME ON Facebook AND INVEST LIKE ME WITH CoVestor!

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Keeping It Simple In 2015

January 6, 2015 at 3:07 am  ·  Category: Currencies, Economics, Energy, Federal Reserve, Top Gun Financial Planning

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

As we start off 2015 on a down note a number of concerns are weighing on markets.

First is the collapse in oil prices.  This is obviously bad for oil companies.  It is also bad for employment in oil related sectors which have created many solid middle class jobs in recent years.  For example, Hercules Offshore (HERO), a Houston based oil services company, is laying off 324 employees, 15% of its workforce, because companies aren’t renewing its contracts in the Gulf of Mexico (“Oil Jobs Squeezed As Prices Plummet”, December 27, 2014, WSJ A1).  It is also bad for oil heavy economies such as North Dakota and Texas.  In the 1980s, an oil bust in Texas led to a collapse in the real estate market which resulted in a banking crisis (“Plunging Oil Prices Test Texas’ Economic Boom”, January 5, 2015, WSJ A1).

On the flip side, the drop in oil prices is a boon to the rest of the economy.  It puts more money in the pockets of consumers who spend less money on gas.  It similarly increases the margins and profits of companies who are energy consumers.  As is frequently the case in economics, there is a concentrated impact on a specific group but a more diffuse, but just as significant, impact on the larger society.

These facts are associated with two narratives about the fall in oil prices.  The bearish narrative suggests that the collapse in oil prices stems from a decline in demand and is the first domino in what will be another global economic collapse in financial asset prices.  This is what has so many concerned about the meaning of the fall in oil prices.  The bullish narrative suggests that the collapse in oil prices stems from an increase in supply and, while painful for the oil related sectors and regions, is a boon to the world economy overall.

Another concern is the rising dollar.  The dollar index rose 12% in 2014.  This is bad for our exports which made up 15% of the economy in 2013.  A rising dollar makes our exports more expensive for countries whose currencies are losing value against it.  “Expect the worst for US trade” Allen Sinai Chief Global Economist of Decision Economics told The Wall Street Journal.  3M’s (MMM) CFO said last month that the rising dollar would trim 2-3% off sales in 2015 (“Dollar Surges to 11 Year High Against Biggest Rivals”, January 3, WSJ A1).

However, as with oil, the strong dollar also results in economic benefits.  While our exports become more expensive, imports become cheaper.  Just as it is cheaper for us to travel in foreign countries, it is cheaper for us to buy their goods.

The main reason the dollar is rising, starting in the second half of 2014, is expectations that the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates for the first time in a decade in 2015.  This is happening at a time when our main rivals, such as Japan and Europe, are actually loosening monetary policy with large doses of quantitative easing.

This has led many to believe the market, which has been propelled by Fed policy, is due for a fall this year as well.  In fact, it is not too much to say that the market is “obsessed” with Fed policy.  However, Janet Yellen is very aware of the market’s obsession and her dovish orientation is likely to cause her to move slowly and carefully.  The Fed has shown deference to the market in recent years and I see no reason to expect that to change.

That is why I am keeping things simple heading into 2015.  The bull market remains intact and I expect that to continue for the immediate future.  I will be watching the oil market and Fed policy very carefully to detect any inflection points but for the moment I am maintaining the status quo in our portfolios.  In fact, I used today’s selloff to add to our positions in Apple (AAPL) and Facebook (FB) as well as initiating a small position in natural gas producer Southwestern Energy (SWN).

Greg Feirman
Founder & CEO
Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)
A Registered Investment Advisor
Bay Area, CA
(916) 224-0113

FOLLOW ME ON Twitter, LIKE ME ON Facebook AND INVEST LIKE ME WITH CoVestor!

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Pressure Point

October 13, 2014 at 11:59 pm  ·  Category: Market Commentary, Stocks, Technical Analysis

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

Last Thursday and Friday were the worst two days for the markets since February.  The S&P is testing its 200 day moving average (DMA) for the first time in 2 years.

Real fear has entered the market for the first time in quite a while.  5 1/2 years into the bull market investors are worried: Is this just a standard correction or the beginning of something more ominous?

 

The next few weeks should provide some answers.  As we begin earnings season, companies will tell us not just about their results for the last three months but what they see going forward.  Everybody will be keying into forecasts as a way to gauge global growth.

The hardest hit sector last week was semiconductors.  Timely then that Intel (INTC) will be reporting 3rd quarter results Tuesday after the close.  In their 2nd quarter earnings report, they forecasted revenue of $14.4 billion +/- $500 million compared to $13.5 billion in the year ago period.  Investors will also be closely scrutinizing their 4th quarter forecast.  This will be an important earnings report that will set the tone for earnings season.

The conjunction of technical support at the 200 DMA with the beginning of earnings season creates a pressure point.  Earnings should be the catalyst to determine which way the market goes from here and the movement either way could be explosive.

Greg Feirman
Founder & CEO
Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)
A Registered Investment Advisor
Bay Area, CA
(916) 224-0113

FOLLOW ME ON Twitter, LIKE ME ON Facebook AND INVEST LIKE ME WITH CoVestor!

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Riding The Bull

September 3, 2014 at 2:47 pm  ·  Category: Federal Reserve, Market Commentary, Stocks, Top Gun Financial Planning

NOTE: Every week or two I wrote a Client Note for my clients. I post most but not all of the notes to my blog but with a time delay usually between 1 day and 1 week. To receive the Client Notes at the same time as my clients, sign up in the box in the right hand corner of the website.

*****

Those of you who have followed me over the years know that I was slow to warm to this bull market.  However, in the last year I have evolved and come to embrace it.  I stopped trying to short it (see “The Loser’s Strategy”, August 4, 2013) and decided to invest more in line with what is actually happening rather than with what I think should be happening.

As a result, my clients and I have had an excellent 8 months to start this year.  My personal account – which is tracked by CoVestor – is up more than 20% and my clients are doing quite well too.

However, I am starting to get nervous again.  The S&P recently tagged 2000 which marks a 200% advance from its March 2009 lows.  2000 is a number that I have targeted in recent Client Notes and hitting it has caused me to think about where we go from here.

One major concern is when the Fed starts raising interest rates.  While many don’t think this will happen until mid-2015, another strong employment report this Friday could pull that time table forward, according to Russ Koesterich, Chief Investment Strategist at Blackrock.  “If you get another strong employment number, that will focus investor attention on the impending monetary tightening.  It could cause volatility in the fall”, Mr. Koesterich told The Wall Street Journal.

Doug Ramsey, Chief Investment Officer at Leuthold Group, is calling for a correction.  “We are expecting and 8% to 10% correction for the S&P 500 over the next two months.  There is a good chance that it would wipe out all the gains for the year”, he told The Wall Street Journal.  (Both the Koesterich and Ramsey quotes are from “Strategists Brace For A Swoon”, Tuesday September 2, C1).

As a result, I have started trimming some positions.  I sold our large position in Lifelock (LOCK) for a significant profit.  I also cut our positions in JC Penney (JCP) and Apollo Group (APOL) in half.  Should any other stocks reach my targets, I wouldn’t hesitate to raise even more cash.

This doesn’t mean that I am turning bearish.  It just strikes me as a good time to raise a little cash when times are good and in case better opportunities present themselves down the road.

Greg Feirman
Founder & CEO
Top Gun Financial (www.topgunfp.com)
A Registered Investment Advisor
Bay Area, CA
(916) 224-0113

FOLLOW ME ON Twitter, LIKE ME ON Facebook AND INVEST LIKE ME WITH CoVestor!

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Check out this short interview I did with Mint.com.

 

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