As 5G fires up across the nation and beyond, this chip-maker will likely be called on to let phones connect to new and old generations of networks.
As the smartphone market has matured, it has become increasingly tied to replacement demand.
Look at these statistics: As of December 2019, there are 5.175 billion unique mobile subscribers across the globe, according to the Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM Association. As surprising as it may sound, the last big quarter for smartphone shipments was the fourth one in 2016. So, despite the seasonal pattern for stronger smartphone sales in the back half of the year, the 1.4 billion units shipped in 2018 was relatively unchanged year-over-year. Prospects for shipments in 2019 also point to modest growth year-over-year.
As we move through 2020, mobile operators will light up their next generation 5G networks that will likely be…
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Key points inside this issue:
- Apple’s 2019 iPhone event – more meh than wow
- GameStop – It’s only going to get worse
- Elliot Management gets active in AT&T, but its prefers Verizon?
- California approves a bill that changes how contract workers are treated
- Volkswagen set to disrupt the electric vehicle market
I’m going to deviate from the usual format we’ve been using here at Tematica Investing this week to focus on some of what’s happening with Select List residents Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T) this week as well as one or two other things. The reason is the developments at both companies have a few layers to them, and I wanted to take the space to discuss them in greater detail. Don’t worry, we’ll be back to our standard format next week and I should be sharing some thoughts on Farfetch (FTCH), which sits at the crossroads of our Living the Life, Middle Class Squeeze and Digital Lifestyle investing themes, and another company I’ve been scrutinizing with our thematic lens.
Apple’s 2019 iPhone event – more meh than wow
Yesterday, Apple (AAPL) held its now annual iPhone-centric event, at which it unveiled its newest smartphone model as well as other “new”, or more to the point, upgraded hardware. In that regard, Apple did not disappoint, but the bottom line is the company delivered on expectations serving up new models of the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad, but with only incremental technical advancements.
Was there anything that is likely to make the average users, not the early adopter, upgrade today because they simply have to “have it”?
Not in my view.
What Apple did do with these latest devices and price cuts on older models that it will keep in play was round out price points in its active device portfolio. To me, that says CEO Tim Cook and his team got the message following the introduction of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max last year, each of which sported price tags of over $1,000. This year, a consumer can scoop up an iPhone 8 for as low as $499 or pay more than $1,000 for the new iPhone 11 Pro that sports a new camera system and some other incremental whizbangs. The same goes with Apple Watch – while Apple debuted a new Series 5 model yesterday, it is keeping the Series 3 in the lineup and dropped its price point to $199. That has the potential to wreak havoc on fitness trackers and other smartwatch businesses at companies like Garmin (GRMN) and Fitbit (FIT).
Before moving on, I will point out the expanded product price points could make judging Apple’s product mix revenue from quarter to quarter more of a challenge, especially since Apple is now sharing information on these devices in a more limited fashion. This could mean Apple has a greater chance of surprising on revenue, both to the upside as well as the downside. Despite Apple’s progress in growing its Services business, as well its other non-iPhone businesses, iPhone still accounted for 48% of June 2019 quarterly revenue.
Those weren’t the only two companies to feel the pinch of the Apple event. Another was Netflix (NFLX) as Apple joined Select List resident Walt Disney (DIS) in undercutting Netflix’s monthly subscription rate. In case you missed it, Disney’s starter package for its video streaming service came in at $6.99 per month. Apple undercut that with a $4.99 a month price point for its forthcoming AppleTV+ service, plus one year free with a new device purchase. To be fair, out of the gate Apple’s content library will be rather thin in comparison to Disney and Netflix, but it does have the balance sheet to grow its library in the coming quarters.
Apple also announced that its game subscription service, Apple Arcade, will launch on September 19 with a $4.99 per month price point. Others, such as Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL) are targeting game subscription services as well, but with Apple’s install base of devices and the adoption of mobile gaming, Apple Arcade could surprise to the upside.
To me, the combination of Apple Arcade and these other game services are another nail in the coffin for GameStop (GME).
GameStop – It’s only going to get worse
I’ve been bearish on GameStop (GME) for some time, but even I didn’t think it could get this ugly, this fast. After the close last night, GameStop reported its latest quarter results that saw EPS miss expectations by $0.10 per share, a miss on revenues, guidance on its outlook below consensus, and a cut to its same-store comps guidance. The company also shared the core tenets of a new strategic plan.
Nearly all of its speaks for itself except for the strategic plan. Those key tenets are:
- Optimize the core business by improving efficiency and effectiveness across the organization, including cost restructuring, inventory management optimization, adding and growing high margin product categories, and rationalizing the global store base.
- Create the social and cultural hub of gaming across the GameStop platform by testing and improving existing core assets including the store experience, knowledgeable associates and the PowerUp Rewards loyalty program.
- Build digital capabilities, including the recent relaunch of GameStop.com.
- Transform vendor and partner relationships to unlock additional high-margin revenue streams and optimize the lifetime value of every customer.
Granted, this is a cursory review, but based on what I’ve seen I am utterly unconvinced that GameStop can turn this boat around. The company faces headwinds associated with our Digital Lifestyle investing theme that are only going to grow stronger as gaming services from Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet come to market and offer the ability to game anywhere, anytime. To me, it’s very much like the slow sinking ship that was Barnes & Noble (BKS) that tried several different strategies to bail water out.
Did GameStop have its time in the sun? Sure it did, but so did Blockbuster Video and we all know how that ended. Odds are it will be Game Over for GameStop before too long.
Getting back to Apple, now we wait for September 20 when all the new iPhone models begin shipping. Wall Street get your spreadsheets ready!
Elliot Management gets active in AT&T, but its prefers Verizon?
Earlier this week, we learned that activist investor Elliot Management Corp. took a position in AT&T (T). At $3.2 billion, we can safely say it is a large position. Following that investment, Elliot sent a 24-page letter telling AT&T that it needed to change to bolster its share price. Elliot’s price target for T shares? $60. I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Soon thereafter, many media outlets from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal ran articles covering that 24-page letter, which at one point suggested AT&T be more like Verizon (VZ) and focus on building out its 5G network and cut costs. While I agree with Elliot that those should be focus points for AT&T, and that AT&T should benefit from its spectrum holdings as well as being the provider of the federally backed FirstNet communications system for emergency responders, I disagree with its criticism of the company’s media play.
Plain and simple, people vote with their feet for quality content. We’ve seen this at the movie box office, TV ratings, and at streaming services like Netflix (NFLX) when it debuted House of Cards or Stranger Things, and Hulu with the Handmaiden’s Tale. I’ve long since argued that AT&T has taken a page out of others’ playbook and sought to surround its mobile business with content, and yes that mobile business is increasingly the platform of choice for consuming streaming video content. By effectively forming a proprietary content moat around its business, the company can shore up its competitive position and expand its business offering rather than having its mobile service compete largely on price. And this isn’t a new strategy – we saw Comcast (CMCSA) do it rather well when it swallowed NBC Universal to take on Walt Disney and others.
Let’s also remember that following the acquisiton of Time Warner, AT&T is poised to follow Walt Disney, Apple and others into the streaming video service market next year. Unlike Apple, AT&T’s Warner Media brings a rich and growing content library but similar to Apple, AT&T has an existing service to which it can bundle its streaming service. AT&T may be arriving later to the party than Apple and Disney, but its effort should not be underestimated, nor should the impact of that business on how investors will come to think about valuing T shares. The recent valuation shift in Disney thanks to Disney+ is a great example and odds are we will see something similar at Apple before too long with Apple Arcade and AppleTV+. These changes will help inform us as to how that AT&T re-think could play out as it comes to straddle the line between being a Digital Infrastructure and Digital Lifestyle company.
Yes Verizon may have a leg up on AT&T when it comes to the current state of its 5G network, but as we heard from specialty contractor Dycom Industries (DY), it is seeing a significant uptick in 5G related construction and its top two customers are AT& T (23% of first half 2019 revenue) followed by Verizon (22%). But when these two companies along with Sprint (S), T-Mobile USA (TMUS) and other players have their 5G network buildout competed, how will Verizon ward off subscriber poachers that are offering compelling monthly rates?
And for what it’s worth, I’m sure Elliot Management is loving the current dividend yield had with T shares. Granted its $60 price target implies a yield more like 3.4%, but I’d be happy to get that yield if it means a 60% pop in T shares.
California approves a bill that changes how contract workers are treated
California has long been a trend setter, but if you’re an investor in Uber (UBER) or Lyft (LYFT) — two companies riding our Disruptive Innovators theme — that latest bout of trend setting could become a problem. Yesterday, California lawmakers have approved Assembly Bill 5, a bill that requires companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to treat contract workers as employees.
This is one of those times that our thematic lens is being tilted a tad to focus on a regulatory change that will entitle gig workers to protections like a minimum wage and unemployment benefits, which will drive costs at the companies higher. It’s being estimated that on-demand companies like Uber and the delivery service DoorDash will see their costs rise 20%-30% when they rely on employees rather than contractors. For Uber and Lyft, that likely means pushing out their respective timetables to profitability.
We’ll have to see if other states follow California’s lead and adopt a similar change. A coalition of labor groups is pushing similar legislation in New York, and bills in Washington State and Oregon could see renewed momentum. The more states that do, the larger the profit revisions to the downside to be had.
Volkswagen set to disrupt the electric vehicle market
It was recently reported that Volkswagen (VWAGY) has hit a new milestone in reducing battery costs for its electric vehicles, as it now pays less than $100 per KWh for its batteries. Given the battery pack is the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, this has been thought to be a tipping point for mass adoption of electric vehicles.
Soon after that report, Volkswagen rolled out the final version of its first affordable long-range electric car, the ID.3, at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show and is expected to be available in mid-2020. By affordable, Volkswagen means “under €30,000” (about $33,180, currently) and the ID.3 will come in three variants that offer between roughly 205 and 340 miles of range.
By all accounts, the ID.3 will be a vehicle to watch as it is the first one being built on the company’s new modular all-electric platform that is expected to be the basis for dozens more cars and SUVs in the coming years as Volkswagen Group’s pushed hard into electric vehicles.
Many, including myself, have been waiting for the competitive landscape in the electric vehicle market to heat up considerably – it’s no secret that all the major auto OEMs are targeting the market. Between this fall in battery cost and the price point for Volkswagen’s ID.3, it appears that the change in the landscape is finally approaching and it’s likely to bring more competitive pressures for Clean Living company and Cleaner Living Index constituent Tesla (TSLA).
A look at the thematic outlook we can piece together from the flow of earnings reports we’ve received thus far.
On this episode of the Thematic Signals podcast, we find ourselves in the thick of earnings season and Tematica’s Chris Versace not only provides an overview for how all of these reports are coming together to form a larger picture, he shares a thematic look at what’s moving several stocks, including Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), International Airlines Group (ICAGY), IBM (IBM), Netflix (NFLX), Skyworks Solutions (SWKS) and the impact of spending on cybersecurity. In thematic speak, it’s the Digital Lifestyle, Digital Infrastructure, Disruptive Innovators, and the Safety & Security themes, with an added dash of privacy. Of particular note, Chris is really excited about one of the latest signals for Tematica’s Cleaner Living investing theme as Nestle SA has found a way to dramatically reduce the sugar content of its KitKat bar. Why? Because it and other food and beverage companies are under pressure from consumers and governments alike to make healthier products amid rising obesity and diabetes rates. If Nestle keeps this up maybe one day it could land in the Tematica Research Cleaner Living Index.
Have a topic or a conversation you think we should tackle on the podcast, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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To date the majority of conversation around 5G mobile network deployments has been in the U.S., as once again Verizon and AT&T battle over whose network will be the best. In the past, the eurozone has blazed the next generation of mobile technology due in part to both Ericsson and Nokia being housed there.
But that is about to change as several mobile operators in the eurozone fire their own 5G cannons with initial network deployments and data plans. While the 5G networks will be a work in progress for some time, the data plans will be something to watch as the carriers balance winning 5G subscribers vs. recouping the spectrum acquisition as well as network buildout costs.
Given the growing pervasiveness of unlimited data plans, we’ll be looking to see how network operators price their 5G offerings, and which solutions stick. As this aspect of our Digital Infrastructure investing theme gets built out, our suspicion is the near unquenchable thirst for data consumption that is part of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme will go swallow up 5G data speeds without missing a beat.
Europe may have lagged behind the United States and South Korea in early 5G network launches due to regulatory hurdles, but top carriers are now making up for lost time with aggressive moves across the continent. In Germany, Deutsche Telekom unexpectedly commenced commercial 5G service in two cities today, while rival Vodafone announced unlimited 4G/5G service plans for the United Kingdom, including 5G roaming across the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain.
In Deutsche Telekom’s case, the carrier has opted to open 5G test networks in Berlin and Bonn to consumers today, with a promise to add four more cities in 2019, and cover 20 by the end of 2020.
The move comes only weeks after the carrier spent $2.45 billion in a German 5G spectrum auction and a year after it first began to publicly complain about the high costs of 5G deployment — the reason its unlimited 5G plan will cost €85 ($96) per month with voice service, or €75 ($85) monthly for hotspot-only data service. Initial service is being focused on dense metropolitan areas, but the carrier plans to “eliminate white spots in rural areas” and build 5G networks for campuses, amongst other expansions of its coverage.
Meanwhile, Vodafone has built upon its earlier promise to launch 5G on July 3, becoming the first U.K. operator to promise unlimited 4G and 5G data plans. For the first week of service, Vodafone is offering 5G along with data-capped plans, but starting July 10 the carrier will offer three unlimited data plans at prices from £23 to £30, differentiated by speed. The lowest-end plan, Vodafone Unlimited Lite, will be capped at a meager 2Mbps, while a £26 Unlimited plan will offer 10Mbps speeds, and the high-end Unlimited Max plan will hit “speeds as fast as the device and the network will allow,” peaking at 100 times faster than its current LTE network.
“[W]ith 5G, the demand for data is only set to increase,” explained Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery. “That is why we want to remove the limits on data, so that customers can unlock the full potential of 5G and we can really propel the U.K. into the digital age. By offering unlimited plans to our consumer and business customers, we will revolutionize the market.”
As consumers continue to shift to digital shopping, a key stool in our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, we are not only seeing more companies embrace the direct to consumer (D2C) business model, but we are also seeing more digital shopping solutions for those companies come to market. Internet shopping platform company Shopify is doing just that as it expands its reach into our Digital Infrastructure investing theme by moving into distribution and fulfillment services. Interesting indeed, but what caught our eye is how they are using machine learning, an aspect of our Disruptive Innovators theme, to do so.
E-commerce technology company Shopify Inc. is extending into physical distribution, offering customers access to a network of dedicated U.S. fulfillment centers to store and ship consumer goods for online orders.
The aim is to speed up delivery for retailers racing to keep up with Amazon.com Inc. while keeping a lid on transport costs by placing inventory across a distributed network within easy reach of major population centers.
Ottawa-based Shopify provides internet shopping platforms and other services that help companies sell items online. It has also branched into payment technology and hardware for use at retail stores and pop-up locations as more online businesses open bricks-and-mortar locations. Its customers include Unilever PLC, Kylie Cosmetics and footwear maker Allbirds Inc.Shopify said Wednesday that its new service uses machine learning to forecast demand, allocate inventory and route orders to the closest fulfillment centers. The company is working with logistics providers and software companies in Nevada, California, Texas, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Our aim is to make fast and inexpensive shipping the new standard on the internet,” said Shopify Chief Product Officer Craig Miller.
Shopify’s move into warehousing services puts it in competition with companies such as Belgian Post Group-owned Radial, which provides technology and e-commerce services for retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. at 21 fulfillment centers.
The services are part of a growing array of operations that startups and traditional shipping companies have launched to compete with Amazon’s expanding distribution system, including a Fulfillment by Amazon business that ties its online marketplace for third-party sellers to its burgeoning network of distribution centers and transportation options.
Key points inside this issue
- The G20 meeting will set the stage for what the Fed does next
- Earnings expectations have yet to follow GDP expectations lower
- We are implementing a $340 stop loss on Digital Lifestyle Thematic Leader Netflix (NFLX).
Over the last few days several economic data points have reinforced the view that the domestic economy is slowing. Meanwhile, the continued back and forth on the trade front, between the U.S. and China as well as Mexico, has been playing out.
What has really captured investors’ focus, however, is the Federal Reserve and the comments earlier this week from Fed Chair Jerome Powell that the Fed is monitoring the fallout from trade issues and eyeing the speed of the economy. Powell said the Fed will “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion, with a strong labor market and inflation near our symmetric 2 percent objective.”
This has led to a pronounced shift in the market, from bad economic data is bad news for the market, to bad news for the economy and trade is good news for the Fed to take action and cut interest rates.
In other words, after the disappointing one-two punch of the IHS Markit US PMI and May ISM Manufacturing Index data, combined with the sharp uppercut that was the May ADP Employment Report, “hopium” has returned to the market.
Over the weekend, we received signs the potential trade war with Mexico will be averted, though few details were shared. China is up next, per comments from U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who warned Beijing of tariffs to come if it does not “move forward with the deal … on the terms we’ve done.”
“If China doesn’t want to move forward, then President Trump is perfectly happy to move forward with tariffs to re-balance the relationship,” Mnuchin said.
Near-term, we’re likely to see more “bad news is good news” for the stock market as evidenced by Friday’s market rally following the dismal May jobs report that fell well short of expectations. More economic bad news is being greeted as a positive right now by the market under the belief it will increase the likelihood of the Fed cutting rates sooner than expected.
While that data has indeed led to negative GDP expectation revisions for the current quarter as well as the upcoming one, this new dynamic moved the market higher last week and helped reverse the sharp fall in the market in May, when the major stock indices fell between 6.5% and 8.0%.
As I see it, while the Fed has recently done a good job of telegraphing its moves, the new risk is the market over-pricing a near-term rate cut.
The next Fed monetary policy meeting is less than two weeks away and already expectations for a rate cut exiting that two-day event have jumped to around 21% from less than 7% just over a month ago, according to the CME FedWatch Tool.
Let’s remember there are four more Fed monetary policy meetings — in July, September, October and December — and those give the Fed ample room to cut rates should the upcoming G20 Osaka Summit on June 28-29 fail to get U.S.-China trade talks back on track.
To me, this makes the next two weeks imperative to watch and to build our shopping list. If there is no trade progress coming out of the G20 meeting, it increases the potential for a July rate cut. If trade talks are back on track, we very well could see the Fed continue its current wait-and-see approach.
And what about that potential for over-pricing a rate cut into the market? Anyone who has seen the Peanuts cartoons knows what happens when Lucy yanks the football out from under Charlie Brown at the last minute as he goes to kick it. If you haven’t, we can assure you it never ends well, and the same is true for the stock market when its expectations aren’t fulfilled.
I talk much more about this on this week’s Thematic Signals podcast, which you can listen to here.
Earnings expectations have yet to follow GDP expectations lower
Here at Tematica our view is that one of the clear-cut risks we face in the current market environment is the over- pricing in of a Fed rate cut at a time when profit and EPS expectations are likely to be revised lower for the second half of 2019. When we see falling GDP expectations like those depicted in the two charts above, it stands to reason we will likely see, at a minimum and barring any substantial trade progress at the G20 summit, companies adopt a more cautious tone for the back half of the year in the coming weeks as we enter the June quarter earnings season.
If that proves to be the case, we are likely to see negative revisions to EPS expectations for the second half of the year. Despite the slowing economic data and impact of tariffs, current expectations still call for an 11% increase in earnings for the S&P 500 in the second half of the year compared to the first half. Viewed a different way, those same expectations for the second half of 2019 call for mid-single digit growth on a year over year basis. To me, given the current backdrop there seems to be more downside risk to those expectations than upside surprise.
Between now and then, we should be listening closely as management teams hit the investor conference circuit this week and next. This week alone brings the Stifel Inaugural Cross Sector Insight Conference 2019, Morgan Stanley U.S. Financials Conference 2019, JP Morgan European Automotive Conference 2019, UBS Asian Consumer, Gaming & Leisure Conference 2019, Deutsche Bank dbAccess 16th Global Consumer Conference 2019, Nasdaq 40th Investor Conference 2019 and the Goldman Sachs 40th Annual Global Healthcare Conference 2019, to name just a few. What we’ll be listening for is updated guidance as well as industry comments, including any tariff impact discussion.
In my view, the conferences and the information spilling out of them will reveal what we are likely to see and hear from various industry leaders in the upcoming June- quarter earnings season.
The June rebound in the stock market propped
In recent weeks, we’ve gotten greater clarity and insight into forthcoming streaming video services from Apple (AAPL) and Disney (DIS), which are likely to make that market far more competitive than it has been to date. Disney’s rumored $6.99 per month starter price recently led Comcast (CMCSA) to not only abandon its own streaming initiative due in 2020 but to also sell its stake in Hulu to Disney. That to me is a potential game changer depending on how Disney folds Hulu’s streaming TV service into Disney+.
One of our key tenants is to observe the shifting landscape, and with regard to streaming video we are seeing the beginning of such a shift. For that reason as well as the risk of a challenging June quarter earnings season in the coming weeks, we are implementing a $340 stop loss on Digital Lifestyle Thematic Leader Netflix (NFLX). That will lock in a profit of just over 27% for NFLX shares.
Later this week, we’ll get the May Retail Sales report, which should once again showcase the accelerating shift to digital shopping. In my view, it’s just another positive data point to be had for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN)… as if all the UPS and other delivery vehicles aren’t enough proof.
In the United States over 80% of households enjoy broadband internet access, a fact that many of us take for granted and as we stream media to our TV’s and other devices and install IoT devices in an attempt to achieve the perfectly “connected home”. Of course, no country has reached the heights of South Korea when it comes to broadband penetration — crossing over 100% as of the end of 2017.
When it comes to Latin America, the penetration of broadband has lagged the rest of the world; however that is changing:
Latin America’s broadband penetration reached 45 per cent of households in 2018 from a previous 43 per cent in 2017. Going forward, 10 million new accesses are expected within two years and internet household penetration will reach 50 per cent of households in 2020, according to GlobalData, a data and analytics company.Ivan Maldonado, Technology Analyst at GlobalData commented, “The total number of fixed broadband household penetration will rise 2 per cent or 5 million broadband connections in 2019, driven by telecommunication operators, reaching a household penetration of 47 per cent for the same period.”
The expansion of broadband access across Latin America is a strong tailwind not only for our Digital Infrastructure theme, for also for our New Global Middle Class investment theme, which focuses on areas around the world where rising disposable incomes are driving demand for a host of products and services. And of course, with more disposable income and an improved digital infrastructure, this development also provides a tailwind for companies such as Netflix (NFLX), Disney (DIS) and Amazon (AMZN) that are riding the Digital Lifestyle tailwinds.
Key points inside this issue
- Safety & Security Thematic Leader is up big year to date, and new body camera and digital records products hitting later this year should accelerate the company’s transition. Our long-term price target on AAXN shares remains $90.
- The April Retail Sales Report should offer confirmation for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) as well as Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST).
Given the wide swings in the market over the last few days that are tied back to the changing US-China trade talk landscape, I thought it prudent to share my latest thoughts even if it’s a day earlier than usual.
As we discussed in the last issue of Tematica Investing, we knew that coming into last week, it was going to be a challenging one. Trade tensions kicked up to levels few were expecting 10 days ago and as the week progressed the tension and uncertainty crept even higher. We all know the stock market is no fan of uncertainty, but when paired with upsized tariffs from both the US and China that will present new economic and earnings headwinds, something that was not foreseen just a few weeks ago, investors will once again have to revisit their expectations for the economy and earnings. And yes, odds are those past and even more recent expectations will be revisited to the downside.
What was originally thought to have been President Trump looking to squeeze some last- minute trade deal points out of the Chinese instead turned out to be more of a response to China’s attempt to do the same. This revealed the tenuous state of U.S./China trade talks. Last Friday morning, the U.S. had boosted tariffs to 25% from 10% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods with President Trump tweeting there is “absolutely no need to rush” and that “China should not renegotiate deals with the U.S. at the last minute.” Even as the new tariffs and tweets arrived, trade negotiations continued Friday in Washington with no trade deal put in place, which dashed the hopes of some traders. Candidly, I didn’t expect a trade deal to emerge given what had transpired over the prior week.
That hope-inspired rebound late Friday in the domestic stock market returned to renewed market pressure over the weekend and into this week as more questions over U.S.-China trade have emerged. As we started off this week, the trade angst between the U.S. and China has edged higher as China has responded to last week’s U.S. tariff bump by saying it would increase tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods to 25% from 10% beginning June 1st. Clearly, the latest round of tweets from President Trump won’t ease investor concern as to how the trade talks will move forward from here.
As the trade war rhetoric kicks up alongside tariffs, the next date to watch will be the G-20 economic summit in Japan next month. According to Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, there is a “strong possibility” Trump will meet Chinese President Xi and this morning President Trump confirmed that.
The cherry or cherries on top of all of this is the growing worries over increasing tension with Iran, which is weighing on the market this morning, and yet another 2019 growth forecast cut by the EU that came complete with a fresh warning on Italy’s debt levels. Growth projections by the European Commission showed a mere 0.1% for GDP growth this year in Italy. The country has the second-largest debt pile in the EU and, according to the latest forecasts by the commission, the Italian debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 133% this year and rise to 135% in 2020. I point these out not to worry or spook you, but rather remind you there are other issues than just US-China trade that have to be factored into our thinking.
The natural market reaction to all of these concerns is to adopt a “risk off” attitude, which, as we’ve seen before, can ignite a storm of “fire first, ask questions later.” And as should be no surprise, that has fueled the sharp move lower in the major market indices. Over the last several days, the S&P 500, which as we know if the barometer used by most institutional and professional investors, fell 4.7% while the small-cap heavy Russell 2000 dropped 5.7%.
At times like this, it pays to do nothing. Hard to believe but as you’ve often heard few will step in to catch a falling knife and given the sharp declines, we also run the risk of a dead cat bounce in the market. We should be patient until the market finds its footing, which means parsing what comes next on the economic and earnings as well as trade front.
I’ll continue to look for replacements for open Thematic Leader slots as well as other contenders poised to benefit from our pronounced thematic tailwinds. In the near-term, that will mean focusing on ones that also have a more U.S.-focused business model, a focus on inelastic and consumable products. Another avenue that investors are likely to revisit is dividend-paying companies, particularly those that fall into the Dividend Aristocrats category because they’ve consistently grown their dividends for the past 10 years. As I sift through the would-be contenders, I’ll be sure to look for those that intersect our investing themes and the aristocrats.
As the stock market has come under pressure, a number of our Thematic Leaders, as well as companies on the Select List, have given back some of their year-to-date gains. One that has rallied and moved higher in spite of the market sell-off is Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AAXN) and are
Axon reported its March quarter earnings last week, which saw revenue grow 14% year over year as Axon continues to shift its business mix from Taser hardware to its Software & Sensor business that fall under the Axon Body and Axon Records businesses. During the company’s earnings conference call, the management team shared its next gen products will be available during the back half of the year. These include the Axon Body, its first camera with LTE live streaming, will launch during the September quarter and Axon Records, its first stand-alone software product. Records w will launch with a major city police department and it is already testing with a second major police department. As far as the new Axon Body product, I suspect the untethering of this camera could spur adoption much the way Apple’s (AAPL) Apple Watch saw a pronounced pick up when it added cellular connectivity to its third model.
These new products, which leverage the intersection between our Digital Infrastructure investing theme and our Safety & Security one, should accelerate the transition to a higher margin, recurring revenue business in the coming quarters. In other words, Axon’s transformation is poised to continue and as that happens investors will be revisiting how they value the company’s business. More than likely that means further upside ahead for AAXN shares.
- Our price target on Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AAXN) remains $90.
Here comes the April Retail Sales Report
Later this week, we’ll get the April Retail Sales Report, which should benefit for the late Easter holiday this year. Up until the March report, this data stream was disappointing during December through February but even so from a thematic perspective the reports continued to reinforce our Digital Lifestyle and Middle-class Squeeze investing themes.
When we look at the April data, I’ll be looking at both the sequential and year over year comparisons for Nonstore retailers, the government category for digital shopping and the category that best captures Thematic King Amazon (AMZN). I’ll also be looking at the general merchandise stores category with regard to Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST). Costco has already shared its April same-store sales, which rose 7.7% in the US despite having one less shopping day during the month compared to last year. Excluding the impact of gas prices and foreign exchange, Costco’s April sales were up 5.6% year over year. From my perspective, the is the latest data point that shows Costco continues to take consumer wallet share.
With reported disposable income data inside the monthly Personal Income & Spending reports essentially flat for the last few months and Costco continuing to open new warehouse locations, which should spur its high margin membership revenue, I continue to see further upside ahead in COST shares. And yes, the same applies to Amazon shares as well.
- Our $250 price target for Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST) is under review.
Coming into this week 15% of the S&P 500 companies have reported and exiting it that percentage will jump to 45%. What the market and investors will be focusing on this week is what led to
If we get the data to show these March reports and prospects for the current quarter are better than expected or feared, we could see the 2019 view for S&P 500 earnings move higher vs. the meager 3.7% growth forecast to $167.95. If that happens, it will mark a change in view for 2019 expectations, which have been eroding over the last several months, and could drive the market higher. However, if we see a pickup in downward EPS cuts, we could see those 2019 S&P 500 consensus expectations come under pressure, which would make the stock market even more expensive following its year to date run of 16%.
Now to sift through the onslaught of more than 680 companies reporting this week, which based on what we’re seeing this morning from Coca-Cola (KO), Lockheed Martin (LMT), Twitter (TWTR) and Pulte Group (PHM) suggest potential upside
Coca-Cola is feeling the tailwind of our Cleaner Living investing theme as sales of its flavored waters and sports drinks rose 6% year over year, significantly faster than the 1% growth posted by its carbonated drinks business. During the earnings conference call, CEO James Quincy shared that the management team is looking to make Coca-Cola a “total beverage company” by adding coffees, teas, smoothies and flavored waters to a portfolio that has traditionally offered aerated drinks.
Lockheed Martin Corp reported better-than-expected quarterly profit yesterday, benefitting from the Safety & Securitytailwind associated with President Donald Trump’s looser policies on foreign arms sales boosted demand for missiles and fighter jets.
Efforts to improve its advertising business model helped Twitter capture some of our Digital Lifestyletailwind as year over year monetizable daily user growth returned to double digits for the first time in several quarters.
Verizon (VZ) beat quarterly expectations and on its earnings conference call 5G and its deployment in the coming quarters was a key topic during the question and answer session. Verizon will continue to build out its network and bring more 5G capable smartphones to market, which in my view continues to bode well for our Digital
Splitting the Housing and Retail Sales hairs
Late last week we received some conflicting economic data in the form of the March Retail Sales report and the March Housing Starts data. While retail sales for the month came in stronger than expected — a welcome sign following the last few months in which that data disappointed relative to expectations — March housing starts fell to their weakest point since 2017 despite a tick down in mortgage rates. Now let’s take a deeper dive into those two reports:
In looking at the March Retail Sales report, total retail rose 1.7% month over month (3.5% year over year) with broad-based sales strength and nice gains seen across discretionary spending categories. While we are quite pleased with the month’s data, subscribers know we tend to favor a longer-term perspective when it comes to identifying data trends. Consequently, as we are bracing for the March quarter earnings onslaught it makes sense to examine how retail sales in this year’s March quarter compared to the year-ago quarter. Here we go:
Leaders for the March 2019 quarter vs. March 2018 quarter:
- Nonstore retailers up more than 11%, which bodes very well for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) and to a lesser extent our Alphabet (GOOGL). Let’s remember that those packages need to get to their intended destinations, which likely means positive things for United Parcel Service (UPS), and I’ll be checking that report, which is out later this week.
- Food services & drinking places rose 4.4%, which points to favorable data for Guilty Pleasure Thematic Leader Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG). And yes, I continue to wait on more about its strategic review process.
- Health & personal care stores were up 4.6%.
- Building material & garden suppliers and dealers
Laggards for the March 2019 quarter vs. March 2018 quarter:
- Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, & book stores were down 7.9
- Department Stores fell 3.8%, which comes as no surprise to me given the accelerating shift to digital shopping that is part of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.
- Miscellaneous store retailers were down 3.8%
Turning to the March Housing Starts report, the aggregate starts data fell to the weakest level since 2017, but that decline includes both single-family and multifamily housing starts. Breaking down those two components, single-family starts were down 0.4% to 781,000, the slowest pace since September 2016, while permits decreased 1.1% to 808,000, the lowest since August 2017. Multifamily starts, which include apartments and condominiums, were unchanged month over month at 354,000, while those permits fell 2.7%.
The March results may have been influenced to some degree by harsh weather in the Northeast, which contended with heavy snowfalls, and in the South as it dealt with record flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Even so, the housing data were off despite a decline in the 30-year mortgage rate to roughly 4.15% this month from 4.86% last October, according to data from Marcrotrends. This decline likely signals that consumers are being priced out of the market as developers and home builders continue to struggle with building affordable properties amid rising labor and materials costs. We also must consider the state of the consumer, who is dealing with the impact of higher debt levels across credit cards, auto loans and student loans — a combination that is sapping disposable income and the ability to service mortgages on homes they may not be able to afford.
Generally speaking, most existing homeowners in the U.S. use the capital from selling their current homes to help fund the purchase of their next dwellings. This means we as investors should watch Existing Home Sales data as a precursor to new home sales and housing starts. Despite February’s better-than-expected sequential print, Existing Home Sales have been falling on a year-over-year basis since February 2018.
Per March Existing Home Sales report, which showed a 5.4% sequential drop vs. February and a similar decline vs. a year ago. For the March quarter, existing home sales fell 5.3%, which in our opinion does not augur well for a near-term pick up in the overall housing market, especially as the recent decline in mortgage rates has not jump started new mortgage applications.
Generally speaking, the housing market has two seasonally strong periods during the year, the spring and fall selling seasons, of which spring tends to be the stronger one. This year, it could be argued that harsh weather in various parts of the U.S. has resulted in the spring selling season getting off to a slow start. Leading up to it, we have seen a climb in the inventory of new homes listed for sale, according to Realtor.com. That’s the supply side of the equation, but the side we remain concerned about is demand.
As we get more data in the coming weeks, we’ll be better able to suss out if we are dealing with a weather related situation, a consumer affordability one or some combination of the two. If the data points to a consumer affordability one, we may consider Home Depot (HD), which is a company that cuts across our Middle Class Squeeze and Affordable Luxury investing themes. Through last night, however, HD shares are up some 28% year to date, and are sitting in over bought territory. Should we see a sizable pullback over the coming weeks as more earnings reports are had and digested, this could be one to revisit.