Category Archives: News

Costco Shares Fall, But Was It All Bad News For This Cash-Strapped Consumer Play?

Costco Shares Fall, But Was It All Bad News For This Cash-Strapped Consumer Play?

On Friday shares of Costco Wholesale (COST) came under pressure triggered by quarterly earnings that missed expectations Thursday night. While revenue for the quarter was a whisper below expectation, earnings for the quarter were impacted by gross margin pressure primarily due to lower gas profitability vs. a year ago. You’ve probably noticed that gas prices have undergone a large double-digit increase since last year, and even Costco is not immune. In our view, this highlights the company’s thin retail margin structure, which can create earnings volatility from time to time.

We’ve seen such thin margins before when examining brick & mortar retailers across the board from Macy’s (M) and Kohl’s (KSS) to Kroger (KR). It makes for a challenging business, but when it comes to Costco, there’s a key differentiator above and beyond its offering of bulk products.

While many focused on the earnings miss, we have been far more focused on Costco’s announced membership price increase that will bring its primary membership to $60 from $55 and its Executive Memberships in the US and Canada to $120 from $110. We see those $5 and $10 increases as not egregious, especially when compared to the $100 increase in the annual fee for American Express’s (AXP) Platinum Card that kicks in later this year, and we suspect the vast majority of Costco members won’t blink at the price hike.

From an investor perspective, we like the announced price hikes because it translates into higher membership fees, which account for roughly 75 percent of overall operating income and help stabilize quarterly retail margin swings. Paired with more warehouse locations as Costco continues to grow its footprint and as Cash-strapped Consumer turn increasingly to Costco for fresh foods as well as bulk items, we continue to see solid revenue and earnings growth ahead. Exiting its most recent quarter, Costco had 728 warehouses, up from 698 in the year-ago quarter, with plans to add another 29 locations during 2017. More locations with more members paying more in membership fees equal more operating income to be had in the coming quarters. As any student taking Financial Statement Analysis knows, operating income is one of the key determinants of Net Income and EPS generation

Given the business model dynamics and Costco continuing to benefit from the Cash-strapped Consumer tailwind, we’re inclined to revisit the shares in the coming weeks with an eye toward getting them back on the Tematica Select List at better prices.

For those looking for more insight on the bulk product and warehouse club industry, but with a hefty dose of our Connected Society investing theme be sure to check out our most recent podcast where we talk with the CEO of Boxed.

Reasons To Be Cautious Ahead of Trump’s Feb. 28 Speech?

Reasons To Be Cautious Ahead of Trump’s Feb. 28 Speech?

Subscribers to Tematica Investing received this commentary on Monday, Feb. 27 with specific instructions pertaining the Tematica Select List.

If you’ve missed our weekly Monday missive that is the Monday Morning Kickoff, we’d encourage you to pursue it later today as it offers both context and perspective on last week, including much talk about the Fed, and sets the stage for this week. We’ve got a lot of data coming at us, more corporate earnings that prominently feature our Cash-strapped Consumer and Fattening of the Population investing themes. There are a number of events and conferences as well, and before too long we’ll have some thoughts on this week’s Mobile World Congress, an event that meshes very well with our Connected Society, Disruptive Technology and Cashless Consumption investing themes. We expect to see a number of announcements ranging from new smartphone models, connected as well as autonomous vehicle developments, voice digital assistant initiatives, drones, and payment systems to name a few. We’ll be watching these with regard to a number of positions on the Tematica Select List,

As Mobile World Congress gets underway, however, we have another event that should capture investor attention. After presenting what’s called a “skinny budget” today, (which we view as the “opening bid budget”) tomorrow night, President Trump will be speaking to a joint session of Congress. Typically this is referred to as the State of the Union Address, but it’s not called that for a newly elected president. Trump has already shared that he will be talking about health care reform – “We’re going to be speaking very specifically about a very complicated subject…I think we have something that is really going to be excellent.”

As we’ve said before, we’re optimistic and hopeful, but thus far it seems Republicans have yet to find common ground on which to move forward on this. In addition to healthcare reform, investors, including us, will be listening for more details on Trump’s fiscal policies. The issue is speeches such as this tend to be lacking in specifics, and we would be rather surprised to see Trump deviate from that tradition.  Moreover, we’ve already seen the Treasury Secretary push out the timetable for a tax report to late summer, and Trump himself suggested that we are not likely to see his tax reform proposal until after the healthcare reform has been addressed.

As we shared in this morning’s Monday Morning Kickoff, with the S&P 500 trading at 18x expected earnings, it looks like the stock market is out over its ski tips. Two drivers of the market rally over the coming months have been the improving, but not stellar economic data and the hope that President Trump’s policies will jumpstart the economy. We’ve been saying for some time that the soonest we’d likely get any meaningful impact from Trump’s policies would be the back half of 2017. That’s been our perspective, but as we know from time to time, the stock market can get ahead of itself, and we see this as one of those times. The stock market’s move reflects expectations for an accelerating economy – it’s the only way to get the “E” that is earnings growing enough to make the market’s current valuation more palatable.

One of the common mistakes we see with investors is they almost always only focus on the upside to be had, without keeping an eye on the downside risks. If Trump is successful when it comes to the domestic economy, and we’d love nothing more than to see acceleration here, earnings will likely grow materially.

One of the potential risks we see this week is the market being disappointed by the lack of details that Trump will share tomorrow night, which might be read as a push out in timing relative to what the stock market expects. As we said on last week’s Cocktail Investing podcast, resetting expectations is a lot like children that open presents on Christmas morning to find something other than what they expected — it’s far from a harmonious event and more like one that is met with mental daggers, confusion, and second guessing. In short, not a fun time at all.

Again, our thought is better to be safe than sorry given where the market currently sits. Some investors may want to utilize stop losses across positions like Universal Display (OLED), CSX Corp. (CSX), Skyworks Solutions (SWKS), Activision Blizzard (ATVI) and others that have been robust performers thus far in 2017 in order to preserve gains should the stock market get its post-Trump speech jiggy on. More aggressive investors may wish to utilize inverse ETFs, such as ProShares Short S&P500 ETF (SH), ProShares Short Dow30 ETF (DOG), or ProShares Short QQQ (PSQ), while traders implement call options on those inverse ETFs or employ the use of select puts.



January Retail Sales – Department Store Pain vs. E-tailing Gains

January Retail Sales – Department Store Pain vs. E-tailing Gains

Earlier today the Census Bureau published its report on January Retail Sales, which topped expectations with a print of +0.4 percent vs. the expected 0.1 percent. Stripping out January Auto sales and food services, Retail sales +0.2 percent month over month. To us, the more telling figure was the 5.1 percent year over year increase in Retail only sales that was fueled by the 14.5 percent increase in Nonstore retailers, the +13.9 percent increase in gasoline station sales as well as strong showings from the Health & Personal Care stores categories and Building Material & Garden stores. Lackluster categories remained General Merchandise and Department Stores as well as Furniture and Electronics & Appliance stores.

Donning our thematic hats and looking at the January report, we find continued support for the accelerating shift toward digital commerce that sits at the core of our Connected Society investing theme and benefits companies like Amazon (AMZN), a Tematica Select List holding, and eBay as well as delivery companies such as United Parcel Service (UPS). To us there is no more telling statistic for that than the year over year comparison between Nov. 2015 – Jan. 2016 and Nov. 2016 – Jan. 2017. when Nonstore retail sales rose 12.7 percent vs. 4.6 percent for overall retail sales. Talk about a share gain!

We see the strong showing by Health & Personal Care stores as rather confirming for our Aging of the Population investment theme, while the continued pain felt at department stores comes as little surprise given the post-holiday shopping comments we’ve heard from Macy’s (M), Kohl’s (KSS), JC Penney (JCP) and others, which includes a number of location closures. That loss of anchor tenants alongside announced store closings ranging from The Limited to Wet Seal and others only supports our Death of the Mall view that poses a significant headwind to mall real-estate investor trust companies like Simon Property Group (SPG), Westfield Corp. (WFGPY) and Taubman Centers (TCO).

Consumers Spend More in December, But Ouch Those Revolving Debt Levels Sure Could Hurt

Consumers Spend More in December, But Ouch Those Revolving Debt Levels Sure Could Hurt

This morning the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published its take on Personal Income & Spending for December. We’re rather fond of this monthly report given the data contained within and the implications for several of our investment themes, including Cash-strapped Consumers as well as Affordable Luxury and the Rise & Fall of the Middle Class. 

So what did the December report show?

Personal Income rose 0.3 percent, far faster than in November, but still below the 0.4-0.5 percentage gains registered in September and October. We saw the same pattern with Disposable Income (which is a better barometer for discretionary spending), as one would expect to see during the holiday shopping laden month of December.

That’s as good a segue as any to remind our readers that holiday shopping during November and December came in stronger than the National Retail Federation had forecasted. The final tally was a year over year increase of 4.0 percent compared to the NRF’s 3.6 percent forecast.

Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “How can that be given all the bad news that we’ve been hearing from Macy’s (M), Target  (TGT), Kohl’s (KSS), Sears (SHLD) and other brick and mortar retailers?”

To be honest, we doubt the average person would have thrown in the “other brick and mortar retailers” part, but we know our readers are smarter than the average bear.

The answer to that question is that non-store sales, Commerce Department verbiage for e-tailers like Amazon (AMNZ), eBay (EBAY) and digital Direct to Consumer business like those found at Macy’s, Under Armour (UAA), Nike (NKE) and other retailers, rose 12.6 percent year over year to $122.9 billion. We certainly like those stats as they confirm several aspects of our Connected Society investing theme, but we would argue a more telling take on the data is that non-store sales accounted for 19 percent of holiday shopping in 2016, up from 17 percent the year before. Nearly one-in-five shopping dollars was spent through online or mobile shopping.

We’ll get a better sense of this shift, which we only see as accelerating, later this week when both United Parcel Service (UPS) and Amazon report their quarterly results for the December quarter. Team Tematica will also be listening to Direct to Consumer comments from Under Armour and other apparel and footwear companies as they too report quarterly results over the next few weeks.

Now let’s take a look at December Personal Spending – it rose 0.5 percent, a tick higher than was expected. Given the NRF data above, it was rather likely we were going to get a better print vs. expectations.

In combining both the income and spending data for the month, we get the savings rate, which fell to 5.4 percent, a five-month low. Compared to a few years ago, that savings level looks rather solid even though it’s well below the longer-term trend line. What we do find somewhat disconcerting, given the prospects for the Fed to boost interest rates up to three times this year after only doing so just two times in the last two years, is the amount of revolving consumer debt outstanding. As evidenced in the graph below, those levels have continued to climb steadily higher during 2015 and 2016.

Should interest rates move higher in 2017, the incremental interest expense could crimp consumer wallets, reducing their disposable income in the process. To us, that could mean less Affordable Luxury or even Guilty Pleasure spending as more become Cash-strapped Consumers.

Voice Recognition Technology Hears Whispers of M&A

Voice Recognition Technology Hears Whispers of M&A

Earlier this month we had CES 2017 in Las Vegas, a techie’s mecca of new whiz-bang products set to hit the market, in some cases later this year, but in others in 2018 and beyond. A person tracking the CES trade shows over the years likely remembers the changes in inputs from clunky keyboards and standalone number pads to rollerball driven mice to laser based ones, which gave way to trackpads and touchscreen technology. Among the sea of announcements this year, there were a number that focused on one aspect of our Disruptive Technology investing theme that is shaping up to be the next big change in interface technology — voice recognition technology.

Over the years, there have been a number of fits and starts with voice technology dating all the way back to 1992 when Apple’s (AAPL) own “Casper” voice recognition system that then-CEO John Sculley debuted on “Good Morning America.” As the years have gone by and the technology has been further refined, we’ve seen more uses for voice recognition technology in a variety of applications and environments ranging from medical offices to interacting with a car’s infotainment system. As far back as 2004, Honda Motor’s (HMC) third generation Acura TL sported an Alpine-designed navigation system that accepted voice commands. No need to press the touchscreen while driving, just use voice commands, (at least that was the dream — but for those of us that tried to change the radio station and ended up switching the entire system over to Spanish, it wasn’t so useful!)

More recently with Siri from Apple, Cortana from Microsoft (MSFT), Google Assistant from Alphabet (GOOGL) and Alexa from Amazon (AMZN) we’ve seen voice recognition technology hit the tipping point. Each of those has come to the forefront in products such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home that house these virtual digital assistants (VDAs), but for now, one of the largest consumer-facing markets for voice interface technology has been the smartphone. Coming into 2016, market research and consulting firm Parks Associates found that nearly 40 percent of all smartphone owners use some sort of voice recognition software such as Siri or Google Now.

In 2016, the up and comer was Amazon, as sales of its Echo devices were up 9x year over year this past holiday season and “millions of Alexa devices sold worldwide this year.” If you’re a user of Amazon Echo like we are, then you know that each week more capabilities are being added to the Alexa app such as ordering a pizza from Dominos (DPZ), calling for an Uber, checking sports scores, shopping with your Amazon Prime account, hearing the local weather forecast and getting the latest news or perhaps some new cocktail recipes.

Not resting on its laurels, Amazon continues to expand Echo’s capabilities and announced that Prime members can voice-order their next meal through Amazon Restaurants on their Alexa-enabled devices including the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot. Once an order is placed, Amazon delivery partners deliver the food in one hour or less. Pretty cool so long as you have Amazon Restaurants operating in and around where you live. We’d point out that since you’re paying with your Prime account, which has a credit card on file, this also expands Amazon’s role in our Cashless Consumption investment theme as does Prime Now which lets Prime members in cities in which the service is available get deliveries in under two hours from Amazon as well as from local participating stores.

But we digress…

Virtual digital assistants cut across more than just smartphones and devices like Amazon Echo and the Google Home. According to a new report from market intelligence firm Tractica, while smartphone-based consumer VDAs are currently the best-known offerings, virtual assistant technologies are also beginning to emerge within other device types including smart watches, fitness trackers, PCs, smart home systems, and automobiles – hopefully, this time not switching us into Spanish.

We saw just that at CES 2017 with some landscape changing announcements for VDAs such as withAlphabet that had several announcements surrounding its Google Home product, including integration into upcoming Hyundai and Chrysler models; and acquiring Limes Audio, which focuses on voice communication systems, and will likely be additive to the company’s Google Home, Hangouts and other products. Microsoft also scored a win for Cortana with Nissan.

While those wins were impressive, the big VDA winner at CES was Amazon as it significantly expanded its Alexa footprint on deals with LG, Dish Network (DISH), Whirlpool (WHR), Huawei and Ford (F). In doing so Amazon has outflanked Alphabet, Microsoft and even Apple in the digital assistant market, but then who doesn’t find Siri’s utility subpar? To us, that’s another leg to the Amazon stool that offers more support to the share alongside the digital shopping/services, content, and Amazon Web Services businesses.

To be fair, Apple originally did not license out its Siri technology. It was only in June 2016 that Apple announced it would open the code behind Siri to third-party developers through an API, giving outside apps the ability to activate from Siri’s voice commands, and potentially endowing Siri with a wide range of new skills and datasets, potentially making a mistake similar to the one that originally cost Apple the Operating System market to Microsoft. Amazon, on the other hand, has been eager to bring other offerings onto its Alexa platform.

Tractica forecasts that unique active consumer VDA users will grow from 390 million in 2015 to a whopping 1.8 billion worldwide by the end of 2021 – Juaquin Phoenix’s Her is closer than you’d think!  During the same period, unique active enterprise VDA users will rise from 155 million in 2015 to 843 million by 2021.  The market intelligence firm forecasts that total VDA revenue will grow from $1.6 billion in 2015 to $15.8 billion in 2021.

In the past when we’ve seen new interface technologies come to market and move past their tipping point, we tended to see slowing demand for the older input modalities. Case in point, a new report from Technavio forecasts compound annual growth of just 3.63 percent for the global computing mouse market between 2016-2020. By comparison, Global Industry Analysts (GIA) expects the global market for multi-touch screens to reach $8 billion by 2020 up from $3.5 billion in 2013, driven by a combination of mobile computing and smart computing devices. For those who are less than fond of doing time calculations, that equates to a compound annual growth rate of 11 percent. We’d also point out that’s roughly half the expected VDA market in 2021.

One potential wrinkle in that forecast is the impact of VDAs. Per eMarketer, 31 percent of 14-17-year-olds and 23 percent of 18-34-year-olds regularly use a VDA.

Putting these two together, we could see slower growth for touch-based interfaces should VDA adoption take off. Looking at the recent wins by Amazon and Google, factoring in that Apple and Comcast (CMCSA) are favoring voice technology in Apple TV and XFINITY TV and growth in the smartphone market is stalling, there is reason to think the GIA forecast could be a tad robust, especially in the outer years.

Turning our investing gaze to companies that could be vulnerable should the GIA forecast prove to be somewhat aggressive, we find Synaptics (SYNA), whose tag line is “advancing the human interface,” and the “human machine interface” company that is Alps. Both of these companies compete in the smartphone, wearables, smart home, access control, automotive and healthcare markets — the very same markets that are ripe for voice technology adoption.

From a strategic and thematic perspective, one could see the logic in Synaptics and Alps looking to shore up their market position and customer base by expanding their technology offering to include voice interface. Given the head start by Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook, while Synaptics and Alps could toil away on “made here” voice technology efforts, the time-to-market constraints would make acquiring a voice technology company far more practical.

Here’s the thing, we’ve already seen Alphabet acquire Limes Audio to improve its voice recognition capabilities. As anyone who has used Apple’s Siri knows, it’s far from perfect in voice recognition and voice to text. In our view, this means larger players could be sniffing around voice technology companies in the hopes of making their VDAs even smarter.

In many respects we’ve seen this before whenever a new disruptive technology takes hold alongside a new market opportunity — it pretty much resembles a game of M&A musical chairs as companies look to improve their competitive position. In our view, this means companies like Nuance Communications (NUAN), VoiceBox, SoundHound, and MindMeld among other voice technology companies could be in high demand.

Disclosure: Nuance Communications (NUAN) shares are on the Tematica Select List. Both Nuance Communications and Synaptics, Inc. (SYNA) reside in Tematica’s Thematic Index.

2016 – Another Year Thematic Investing Beats the S&P 500

2016 – Another Year Thematic Investing Beats the S&P 500

Looking back 2016 was quite the year with Greek debt relief, the EU’s tax crackdown, the sale of Yahoo ([stock_quote symbol=”YHOO”]) and rumored takeover of Twitter ([stock_quote symbol=”TWTR”]), the unexpected Brexit vote and the ensuing British Pound Sterling’s plunge to multi-decade lows, the Italian referendum followed by Prime Minister Renzi’s resignation, the troubled Monte dei Paschi (BMDPY) bailout, Russian hacking, OPEC’s deal to cut output, and one of the most vicious presidential campaigns culminating in Donald Trump’s election, followed by the Fed’s lone rate hike in 2016 and a corresponding surge in the US dollar. We think we would be hard-pressed to find many that predicted all of those happenings this time last year.

We also think there were few and far between that thought back in January 2016 that the S&P 500, the preferred metric among fund managers, would have climbed 9.5% by the end of 2016. Let’s remember, after the first several weeks of 2016 that index was down just over 8.7%. That makes the rebound and climb higher over the balance of 2016 that much more impressive if you bought the market.

The problem is, despite all the mutual funds and ETFs that are out there, very few investors actually “buy the market.” Buying the market can, at times, deliver rewards as we saw in 2016. According to Openfolio, the average investor in 2016 didn’t “buy the market” and instead had a gain of roughly 5%, due in part to having their portfolio too concentrated in stocks that didn’t perform. Let’s face it, if you didn’t own shares of Goldman Sachs in the back half of 2016, odds are you didn’t beat the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Lest we let the year’s heady gains of cloud our judgment, for every 2016 — where buying an ETF that mimicked the performance of the S&P 500 or the Dow worked well by year’s end — there tends to be a year like 2015 when the S&P 500 fell nearly 1%. While we tend to hear about the great bull market that transpired during the late 1980s and 1990s, we also have to remember that if you were an investor that, “bought the market” in early 2000, it would have taken you until July 2007 to recoup your losses. Then came the Great Recession, which meant if you held “the market,” it meant meaningful positive returns would have eluded you until after March 2013.

As we like to say perspective is everything. That same perspective also reminds us that the world is a very different place than it was in the last part of the 20th Century. Consider that back then there was no such thing as the smartphone, the Internet, Amazon, streaming content, online shopping, mobile payments, and texting only caught on toward the end of the 1990s. Back then we also saw a labor force growing versus the relatively stagnant levels since the financial crisis.

We live in a very different world today compared to a few decades ago, which makes comparisons more like apples to oranges than apples to apples. There continue to be many transformative elements at play today and we are only now starting to see the impact of some, like mobile commerce and artificial intelligence, as well as augmented and virtual reality, that will likely see that transformation continue. That’s before we contemplate what will happen once President-elect Trump becomes President Trump. While we are optimistic about the pending policy changes and what they could mean for businesses and stock prices, they have yet to be fully spelled out, which makes it hard to assess their potential impact.

As we say at Tematica Research, only by thinking differently than the herd can you truly outperform the market. We believe that traditional sector investing is dead, and investors need to position themselves to capture the shifting landscapes that are resulting in pronounced tailwinds and headwinds. That thinking led to our creation of the Thematic Index, which reflects our 17 investment themes across more than 150 stocks.


So how did the Thematic Index perform in 2016?

Once again it outperformed the S&P 500 in 2016, marking the sixth consecutive year it has done so. Some of our stronger performing thematics in 2016 included Tooling & Re-Tooling, Economic Acceleration/Deceleration, and Scarce Resources.

Were all of our 17 themes strong performers in 2016? Of course not, but the overall performance speaks to having a balance thematic portfolio rather than favoring any one particular theme.

Before accounting for dividends, eight of our investment themes outperformed the market by a wide margin, one was essentially in line with the S&P 500 and eight underperformed with two of those under performing themes down slightly for the year. There were a number of high fliers across our 17 investment themes, including Grand Canyon Education ([stock_quote symbol=”LOPE”]), iRobot ([stock_quote symbol=”IRBT”]), IDEXX Laboratories ([stock_quote symbol=”IDXX”]) and Mueller Water Products ([stock_quote symbol=”MWA”]), Parker-Hannifin ([stock_quote symbol=”PH”]), Wynn Resorts ([stock_quote symbol=”WYNN”]), and ZELTIQ Aesthetics ([stock_quote symbol=”ZLTQ”]) to name just over a handful. The index was also dealt a helping hand from M&A activity during the year, which led to hefty gains in Lifelock, LinkedIn, and ARM Holdings.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream, as the Thematic Index felt the weight associated with drops in Stonemore Partners, Corrections Corp. of America ([stock_quote symbol=”CXW”]), Nuance Communications ([stock_quote symbol=”NUAN”]) and Under Armour ([stock_quote symbol=”UAA”]).  We’ll reassess those under-performing positions to see if either the thematic drivers that first landed them in the Thematic Index are intact or has the business has shifted such that they are no longer in the thematic slipstream. During the December quarter, we exited Corrections Corp. of America and Shake Shack ([stock_quote symbol=”SHAK”]), replacing them with OSI Systems ([stock_quote symbol=”OSIS”]) and Insulet Corp ([stock_quote symbol=”PODD”]).

We’ll continue to make refinements and needed adjustments to the Thematic Index as dictated by the shifting and intersecting landscapes of economics, demographics, psychographics, technology and other key factors to identify the companies best positioned to ride the thematic transformation and avoid those companies that either can’t or won’t adjust their business model. In our view, those latter companies are poised to hit a headwind that will not only impact their business, but their stock price as well. When it comes to investing minimizing the number of underperforming positions can be as important as identifying the winners if you’re looking to beat the market. When it comes to investing minimizing the number of underperforming positions can be as important as identifying the winners if you’re looking to beat the market.


Italy’s referendum has the potential to set off a global landslide

Italy’s referendum has the potential to set off a global landslide

While financial, industrial and small cap stocks in the US have been partying like it’s 1979, investors would be wise to take more than a passing look across the Atlantic at Europe’s next biggest threat.

You’ve probably seen commentary about Italians voting on a constitutional referendum; not exactly riveting material.

Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, is a nation in desperate need of reforms, having underperformed its major trading partners for decades, with the latest per capita GDP below 1997 levels and metropolitan area employment levels well below those in most of Europe.

Obviously, change is needed, but what is this referendum, why do you care and what is the herd getting wrong?

If you google the topic, you can get endless details on the vote, but here are the salient points. The Italian nation in its current form was born right after WWII and as such, has a deep-seated fear of concentrated power; pretty understandable after the fun times under Mussolini and his buddy Hitler.

That fear created a government with essentially two congressional bodies, both like America’s House of Representatives, except with more than double the members and even more layers of government from the top federal level on down to localities. There are a lot of people whose entire raison d’etre is to express their opinions and these are Italians, so the whole thing takes longer and is more emphatic.

The intention of the measures in the referendum, according to Prime Minister Mario Renzi, is to make government less complex and more functional, with fewer people involved and fewer layers. For example, today the Chamber of Deputies (Congress) has 630 members, (elected by voters age 18 and older) and the Senate has 350 members, (elected by voters 25 and older). The Senate would be cut to 100 members appointed by the regional elected governors, rather than by voters, and would only be involved in major decisions such as war or international treaties versus today where both houses basically participate in everything equally. The province layer of government would be officially removed.

David Cameron

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron wipes his eye as he addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

There’s more to it, but that gives a general sense. This bill is vast and complex, making a vote on it challenging as voters are unable to decide between the changes they support and those they don’t; it is all or nothing.

The bill was originally introduced by Renzi and his center-left party, then voted on by the Chamber and Senate twice. Yes, twice. It is now being put to a general vote by the electorate, illustrating the challenges of getting anything done in Italy’s government.

When it was first introduced and discussed, Renzi was enjoying more support than he is today, which led him to make the same mistake made by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron with Brexit, by making passage of the bill an endorsement of him. Back then Renzi vowed he’d not only resign, but would give up his political career; talk about laying it on thick. Recently Renzi has tried to soften his rhetoric, but most think that in the public’s that mind ship has long since sailed, so it would be tough for him to renege on those vows.

A man walks on a logo of the Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena bank in Rome, Italy September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

A man walks on a logo of the Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena bank in Rome, Italy September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

Opponents claim that a “yes” vote would give Renzi excessive power, which when you think back to the 1930s and 1940s, gives anyone in that part of the world understandable heartburn. While many are likening this vote to Brexit and Trump, the dynamics here are materially different. Brexit was primarily a, “Screw you!” to the status quo and bureaucrats in Brussels. Trump stormed into D.C. amongst cries of “Drain the Swamp!” Many are looking at the polls in Italy today, which indicate a “no” vote majority, and likening them to the inaccuracies of the Brexit and Trump predictions – that is a mistake.

The truth is at this point, most Italians don’t really even understand what the referendum is all about and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star movement, is helping to give voters the impression that a “yes” vote would give Renzi near-dictatorship powers.

Those Italians who understand that red tape is the biggest enemy of the country would vote “yes” over and over again. The problem is that those that would vote “yes”, tend to be better educated and higher income earners, which has given this vote a vibe of class warfare. With many of Italy’s business elite thinking that Renzi may be Italy’s last hope, that schism is visible to most everyone.

The Importance of this Referendum on Worldwide Markets

Investors need to care about this because the market has decided that this vote is an indicator of Italy’s ability to make much-needed reforms and that matters because of the impact of Italy’s banks and sovereign debt. The actual quality or validity of the reforms proposed in the referendum have become almost meaningless. For those within Italy the vote has become a referendum on Renzi and as Italians grow increasingly frustrated that their lives haven’t materially improved, even some members of Congress from within Renzi’s own party who originally voted for the referendum are now scrambling to develop compelling arguments for why they now oppose it.

Italian banks are in a world of hurt, which is almost intuitive if you look at the nation’s credit markets and weak economy. Italy has negligible public credit markets, so borrowing means a trip to the bank, which makes credit risk more highly concentrated than in countries like the US, which have robust bond markets. During the financial crisis and in the years following, banks engaged in a lot of extend-and-pretend, some of that of their own volition, some after cozy chats with government officials, hoping that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the economy would get back on its feet and those struggling loans could be made good.

Despite a rapid procession of new leaders, the economy has yet to recover. Granted, it is better today than in 2012, with a few new stores popping up here and there rather than seeing yet another one shut down week after week. The unemployment rates for younger Italians, however, remain tragic and intense frugality is more the fashion than Milan’s latest catwalk. Businesses remain weak, so borrowers and banks that made those loans are still struggling. Adding to the pain are the piles of sovereign bonds warehoused at banks and the even more painful dirty little secret that the Italian government is notorious for not paying its own bills. This creates a twisted triangle between the bank pressuring companies to pay their debts, those companies, in turn, trying to collect from the government and bureaucrats dialing up the banks for leniency towards those the government owes.

The Shake Out From this Vote Will be Felt Worldwide

Beppe Grillo

Leader of the Five Star Movement and comedian Beppe Grillo.REUTERS/Remo Casilli

If contrary to the polls the “yes” vote wins, Italian bonds and banks will rally and the MIB (Italian stock index) will have a huge relief rally, particularly given its over-exposure to banks, and the euro will likely strengthen relative to other currencies.

If the polls are right and we see a “no” vote by a large margin, Italian yield spreads over German bunds will widen a lot. Italian bank stocks will accelerate downward and Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) will likely need external aid, which will put the European Central Bank in the hot seat,  and all eyes will be on German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is also watching Germany’s Deutsche Bank spiraling downward.

Renzi will be pressured to resign, (unless the win is by the smallest of margins) and the Italians will find themselves back at the polls, with the outside chance that Beppe Grillo’s Five Star could gain additional traction, which would be terrifying for anyone doing business in the region. The euro will weaken materially. European banks as a whole will likely take a hit and the dollar will get pushed further and further up as money races out of increasingly dicey Eurozone into the relative safety of the US dollar and US assets – a tailwind to US stocks and bonds. The Italy economy would slow further thanks to the increased uncertainty, which would bleed over into other European nations and global trade. The acceleration to the rising dollar headwind facing US multinationals could render the Fed’s rate hike decision irrelevant in comparison and harm growth back in the States at a point when the economy looks just finally be gaining a bit of traction.

While it may seem like a minor event on the global stage now, history is full of moments that initially seemed of little importance, but like the final grain of sand that ignites a landslide, in retrospect, those moments changed the global landscape in ways that were previously unimaginable.