Can The Santa Experience Save Brick-And-Mortar Retail This Holiday Season?

Can The Santa Experience Save Brick-And-Mortar Retail This Holiday Season?

This is a quaint idea, but as the data published by ShopperTrak for Black Friday 2019  showed there is no putting the digital shopping genie back in the bottle, especially not after companies like Target and Walmart have ramped up their digital commerce efforts to battle Amazon.

Some holiday traditions are easy to explain — things like wrapping presents, drinking hot chocolate and baking cookies are all neatly summed up with the knowledge that the vast majority of people like opening presents and eating cookies.

Source: Can The Santa Experience Save Brick-And-Mortar Retail This Holiday Season?

All Eyes On The September Jobs Report

All Eyes On The September Jobs Report

Today’s Big Picture

US market futures point to a modestly lower open Friday morning. After the disappointing manufacturing and services data this week, all eyes will be on today’s Nonfarm Payrolls report, which is expected to see 145,000 jobs added in September, up from 130,000 in August with the unemployment rate holding at 3.7% and wages gaining +0.2%. Keep in mind that the General Motors (GM) strike will add some confusion to the data as striking workers aren’t counted in payrolls.

We’ll also be looking for any updates on the previous downward revisions to payrolls. In August the BLS cut job gain estimates for 2018 and early 2019 by about 500,000, the largest such downward revision in the past decade. Overall we’ve seen downward revisions for around 17 months – a sure sign that labor market dynamics ...

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Weekly Issue: While far from booming, U.S. economy not  as bad as the headlines

Weekly Issue: While far from booming, U.S. economy not as bad as the headlines

Key points inside this issue

  • Thematic confirmation in the July Retail Sales report
  • Getting back to the global economy and that yield curve inversion
  • The week ahead
  • The Thematic Leaders and Select List
  • A painful reminder about dividend cuts

Despite Friday’s rebound, the stock market finished down week over week as it continued to grapple with the one-two punches of the slowing global economy and U.S.- China trade. There was much chatter on the recent yield-curve inversion, but as we look back at the economic data released last week, the U.S. economy continues to be on more solid footing than the Eurozone or China.

That’s not to say the domestic economy is booming. The Cass Freight Index, weekly railcar-traffic and truck-tonnage data and the July U.S. industrial-production report’s manufacturing component leave little question that America’s manufacturing economy is slowing. And as we saw last week, the U.S. consumer buoyed the economy in July with stronger-than-expected retail sales.


Thematic confirmation in the July Retail Sales report 

Last week’s July Retail Sales Report confirmed one of the key aspects of our Digital Lifestyle investment theme – the accelerating shift toward digital shopping that continues to vex brick and mortar retailers, particularly department stores. Granted, the year over year increase in non- store retail sales of 16.0%, which was several magnitudes greater than overall July Retail Sales that rose 3.4% year over year and bested sequential expectations, was aided by Thematic King Amazon’s (AMZN) 2019 Prime Day event but one month does not make a quarter. For the three months ending July, non-store retail sales rose 14.2% year over year, easily outstripping the 3.2% year over year comparison for overall retail sales. 

Clearly, the shift to digital shopping is not only underfoot, or more properly stated on a variety of keyboards, it is accelerating, and the victims continue to be department stores, electronics and appliance stores, sporting goods and bookstores, and to a lesser extent clothing and furniture. We’re seeing this play out in the results from Macy’s (M) as well as J.C. Penney (JCP), which is so strategically lost it is venturing into the used clothing market through a partnership with online consignment company thredUP. With its July quarter sales down 9% year over year, J.C. Penney is going for the “Hail Mary” pass with this move, but it’s only going to bring cheaper product in to compete with its already low-priced offering. I can almost understand the J.C. Penney is looking to double-down on our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme, but it’s facing stiff competition from companies like Poshmark that are doing that as well as riding our Digital Lifestyle theme. 

Each of those challenged categories I mentioned above are also areas that Amazon continues to target with offerings from both third-party sellers as well as its growing private label line of products. I’ve often said Amazon shares are ones to hold, not trade, and we continue to feel that way as we approach the seasonally strongest time of the year for its business.


Getting back to the global economy and that yield curve inversion

For now, the U.S. economy remains the best house on the economic block — but it’s showing signs of wear. Of course, the fact the yield curve inverted briefly last week rang the “Recession Warning Bell.” But let’s remember that there’s historically been a lag of up to almost two years following that warning. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has already adopted a more dovish tone and will likely stand ready to add more stimulus to the economy if need be. All eyes will now on the Fed’s mid-September monetary-policy meeting.

Meanwhile, as economic-growth worries increased in the Eurozone and China last week, we heard about a big bazooka of stimulative measures that the European Central Bank is considering for its Sept. 12 policy meeting. China will also reportedly soon roll out a plan to boost disposable income over the coming quarters to spur its domestic consumption.

I would suggest you tune in later this week for what Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins has to say on this.

We’ll continue to monitor how global central bankers try to steer their respective economies in the coming weeks. While we suspect that Wall Street will likely cheer any and all dovish moves, the question remains how stimulative those policies will really be if the U.S.-China trade war continues.

U.S.-Chinese trade talks are set to resume in September, which tells us that we might get a lull in Wall Street’s recent volatility. But we should by no means think that “Elvis has left the building,” and we could very well see another round of turbulence in the coming weeks.


The Week Ahead

With two weeks to go until the Labor Day holiday weekend, we’re officially in the dog days of summer. These weeks historically see lower-than-usual trading volume, as investors and traders look to squeeze in that last bit of fun in the sun. Following last week’s full plate of economic data, this week will have a far smaller helping coming at us. Upcoming reports include July new- and existing-home sales, as well as the Index of Leading Economic Indicators.

Investors will also focus on what the latest flash PMI data from IHS Markit has to say about the global economy when that report lands on Aug. 22. I’ll be looking to see whether the U.S. economy continues to outperform Japan, China and the Eurozone following data out last week that suggested the German and Chinese economies continue to slow.

Reading those reports and the upcoming Federal Open Market Committee meeting minutes should set the stage for what we’re likely to hear when the FOMC next meets on Sept. 18. We’ll also have more data coming our way over the weeks leading up to the FOMC session, and we’re apt to get a few surprises along the way. While there’s no Fed interest-rate meeting scheduled for August, the Kansas City Fed will hold its widely watched annual Jackson Hole symposium Aug. 22-24 in Wyoming. The central bank doesn’t usually discuss monetary-policy plans at this event, but we aren’t exactly in normal times these days.

On the earnings calendar this week, the focus will continue to be on retail. If we were reminded of one thing last week in retail land, it’s that not all companies are responding the same way to retailing’s changing landscape. Just look at what we heard last week from Walmart (WMT), Macy’s (M) and JCPenney (JCP). Other key retail reports to watch this week include Home Depot (HD), Kohl’s (KSS), Lowe’s (LOW), Target (TGT), Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS), and Foot Locker (FL). I’ll be looking for the degree to which they’re embracing digital shopping, as well as what they have to say about tariff implications and their expectations for 2019’s remainder.

We’ll also hear from Salesforce (CRM) and Toll Brothers (TOL), which should shed some light on the housing market and IT spending associated with our Disruptive Innovators and Digital Infrastructure investing themes.


The Thematic Leaders and Select List

As I noted above, last week was another choppy one for the stock market and those swings stopped out of Thematic Digital Infrastructure Leader Dycom Industries (DY) as well as Cleaner Living company International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) shares. Given that we were stopped out, it means we took some losses in those two positions, but as I look at the live ones across the Thematic Leaders and the Select List I see an impressive array of returns with our Amazon, Costco Wholesale (COST), Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), McCormick & Co. (MKC), Walt Disney (DIS), Universal Display (OLED) and USA Technologies (USAT) shares. 

Wide swings in the market can present both challenging times as well as opportunities provided, we get some degree of clarity. As I touched on above, the first few weeks of September could be when we see that clarity emerge. Until then, we’ll continue to look for thematically well positioned companies at favorable risk to reward entry points. 


A painful reminder about dividend cuts

Last week I mentioned that the following – I’m focusing more on domestic-focused, inelastic business models that tend to spit off cash and drive dividends. In particular, I’m looking at companies with a track record of increasing their dividends every year for at least 10 years. And of course, they have to have vibrant thematic tailwinds at their respective back.

While I was doing just that, shares of famous lawn-mower engine maker Briggs & Stratton Corp. (BGG) — whose shares tumbled 44.5% last Thursday — presented a sharp reminder as to what can happen when a company cuts its dividend. Yes, the shares rebounded late last week along with the market, but they’ve been generally falling for a long time as the company’s dividend looked shakier and shakier.

Investors tend to think of quarterly dividends as payments in perpetuity, but these payouts are actually only declared at a company board’s discretion. When dividends are disrupted, that can lead to significant share-price pain for a stock.

In this case, Briggs & Stratton not only cut its dividend and reported a far-greater-than-expected quarterly loss, but also slashed its outlook for the balance of the year. The company now expects to earn just $0.20-$0.40 per share for the full year, which down significantly from its prior forecast of $1.30.

When matched up against its revised revenue forecast of $1.91 billion to $1.97 billion vs. a prior $2.01 billion, it’s rather evident that BGG’s cost structure has become an issue. So, it’s no little surprise that Briggs & Stratton also announced plans to close a plant that manufactures engines for the walk-behind lawn mowers you commonly find at Home Depot (HD) or Lowe’s (LOW) .

The company called out that product category in particular for weakness, which management attributed to the U.S. housing market’s current tone. I’ve previously talked about how new- and existing-home sales have been rather sluggish despite the recent mortgage-rate drop, with low rates fueling a wave of home refinancings rather than purchases.

But the biggest factor behind Thursday’s steep BGG dive was the fact that management slashed the company’s quarterly dividend by 64% to $0.05 per share from the prior $0.14. That one-two-three punch combination — bad earnings, a bad forecast and a dividend cut — sent Briggs & Stratton’s share price tumbling.

Going into Thursday morning’s earnings report, BGG shares were sporting a 6.8% dividend yield, which is on the lofty side. Investors should have interpreted that as a warning and here’s why – even before Thursday’s selloff, BGG shares had been down some 70% since January 2018, partly because the company missed analysts’ earnings expectations for the prior three quarters. In hindsight, the misses were escalating in percentage terms — a trend that continued with Thursday’s earnings report.

Paired with the dividend cut, there’s little confidence any more in the current management team, which means BGG shares are likely to flounder further due to several unknowns. Some of those unknowns are company specific, like: “Will be the plant closure deliver sufficient savings?” But others are about the U.S. economy’s future vector and velocity, which Thursday’s July industrial-production report shows is continuing to cool.

And while the July U.S. retail-sales report came in better than expected, we already know that consumers aren’t buying lawnmowers. And unfortunately, that’s not likely to change any time soon as we put the summer behind us.

The bottom line — as I’ve discussed before, when a stock’s dividend yield looks too good to be true, odds are it is just that. BGG is just the latest stock to prove that. While its newly revised dividend yield (4.1%) might still look enticing, it’s not one that we should be clamoring for given the lack of thematic tailwinds for its lawnmowing business. But at a minimum, no investor should consider the shares until there is some proof that management’s turnaround plan is on the cusp of delivering. 

Next-day and same-day delivery will take a knife to brick & mortar retail

Next-day and same-day delivery will take a knife to brick & mortar retail

“Retailers closed a record 102 million square feet of store space in 2017, then smashed that record in 2018 by closing another 155 million square feet, according to estimates by the commercial real-estate firm CoStar Group.”

And that’s before Amazon unveiled the shift in its Prime service to one-day from two-day shipping. In short order, we’ve seen both Walmart and Target join the one-day shipping ranks. In our view this will only add gas to the fire that is brick & mortar retail closures and it sets the stage for a painful second half of 2019. We’ll look for confirmation in the volume of truck and van deliveries that are likely to ensue as next-day and even same-day delivery gets those potential digital shoppers off the fence and joint in this  aspect of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Target is among the latest merchants to boost its same-day delivery offerings. The retail chain is making same-day delivery though Shipt available to all of its shoppers. The retailer’s June 13 announcement shows Target is moving to compete with Amazon and Walmart in an ongoing bid to provide customers with the quickest delivery service.

Target said online customers in 47 states can now get items delivered on the same day for a flat fee of $9.99 per order. Target acquired Shipt in 2017 for $550 million. Previously, Target customers could get same-day delivery by being a Shipt member, for $99 a year. That’s still an option, but now customers can also get one-day delivery for just one order.

Not to be undone, Walmart recently said it is expanding its next-day delivery service before the start of the back-to-school shopping season. The retailer is opening up the service to a dozen new states, including in parts of Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Wisconsin. It originally launched in May for customers in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California, and Walmart previously revealed it wants to reach about three-quarters of the U.S. by the end of the year.

Walmart’s next-day delivery is available for customers who spend $35 or more. Orders are shipped in one box to address complaints from customers about receiving multiple boxes.

Source: Same-Day Delivery Wars Heat Up | PYMNTS.com

Shopify expands footprint into fulfillment services

Shopify expands footprint into fulfillment services

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.

Source: Online Retail Provider Shopify Adds Fulfillment Service – WSJ

Warehouse Hiring Surges on Rising E-Commerce Demand

Warehouse Hiring Surges on Rising E-Commerce Demand

We see this every month in the Retail Sales report and almost every week in our everyday lives – consumers continue to flock to digital shopping – and that is spurring demand for distribution centers and warehouses as well as workers to fill them. As Amazon looks to expand not only the reach of its private label brands but move into the online pharmacy market courtesy of its PillPack acquisition, the odds are high that Walmart, Target and other companies will look to combat Amazon by at a minimum matching its buy/ship service. And that’s even before Amazon announced it will debut one-day shipping with Prime. More packages, more distribution centers, more jobs. A plain and simple result of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Warehouse operators stepped up hiring in April as e-commerce demand drove up employment in distribution centers even as job growth across the rest of the freight-transportation sector slowed.

Warehousing and storage companies added 5,400 jobs last month, according to preliminary figures the Labor Department reported Friday, the fourth straight month of growth in a sector that includes fulfillment centers that process and ship online orders. The sector added nearly 70,000 jobs over the past 12 months.

The gains in warehousing and delivery come as rapid e-commerce growth pushes companies to open more fulfillment centers near major population centers to speed up delivery to customers. U.S. online sales jumped 14.2% in 2018, generating an estimated $513.6 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Brian Devine, senior vice president of logistics-staffing firm ProLogistix, said he is seeing “huge growth” for logistics and e-commerce workers in key hubs like Southern California’s Inland Empire; areas of New Jersey near New York City; Atlanta; Indianapolis; and Memphis, Tenn.

“There are not enough workers in those markets,” Mr. Devine said. “The unemployment rate is so low that it’s difficult for us to fill those positions.” He said the average wage for ProLogistix workers jumped 6.8% in April from the same month a year ago, to $13.81 an hour.

Source: Warehouse Hiring Surges on Rising E-Commerce Demand – WSJ

The U.S. government is knocking for student loan

The U.S. government is knocking for student loan

While there are talks of student loan forgiveness on the 2020 campaign trail, the Treasury Depart is stepping up its game to collect on delinquent student loans. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) points to disposable income once again coming under pressure during the first quarter of 2018. Paired with rising gas prices and renewed uncertainty over the global economy as well as the current state of US-China trade, we see the average consumer remaining in a tight spot.

It comes as no surprise to us that loan inquiries at consumer finance platform company LendingClub jumped significantly in the March 2019 quarter as consumers look to shore up their personal finance and manage existing debt levels. Disposable dollars for debt servicing take a bite out of consumer spending, which means our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme remains an economic headwind. It does, however, bode very well for companies like Costco Wholesale, BJ’s, Walmart and Amazon that help consumers stretch their spending dollars.

Your rich Uncle Sam is calling in his chips.The U.S. government stepped up collections on delinquent student debt to $2.9 billion last year — or an average of $1,000 from 2.9 million former students and their cosigners, according to the Treasury Department. And the trend continues. In the first six months of fiscal 2019, which started Oct. 1, collections totaled $3.3 billion.

Source: U.S. Stepping Up Enforcement on Delinquent Student Loans – Bloomberg

Walmart teams with Google for grocery voice play

Walmart teams with Google for grocery voice play

Walmart is teaming with Alphabet Inc. to take the grocery fight via voice ordering to Amazon and its Whole Foods, Alexa combination.

In a blog post, Walmart shared that starting this month, customers would be able to grocery shop through the Google Assistant by saying, “Hey, Google, talk to Walmart.” This seems like a positive for Google, especially if they are able to share in the data collection with Walmart, while for Walmart it seems like the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s also a way to add the functionality associated with our Disruptive Innovators investing theme without having to develop a solution in house.

Kudos to Walmart for continuing to innovate and partner for the new digital world we live in. And to be clear, while Amazon and Walmart compete on several levels, Walmart lacks the profit and cash flow powerhouse that is Amazon Web Services.

According to data from Loup Ventures and published by Voicebot.ai, Amazon’s Alexa had 52% global market share in 2018 vs. 32% for Google Home/Assistant. For now, that would appear to give Amazon the edge, but the reality is it comes down to the percentage of people using these devices to order groceries.

Here’s the thing, just because Walmart makes it available, it doesn’t mean consumers will be using Google Assistant to order groceries. Even I still like to pick out fresh produce and select my cuts of meat. But for generic and boxed items ranging from detergent to garbage bags, this could give not only Amazon a run for its money but also Costco Wholesale and Target.

Now to see how usage develops and what if any other other potential partnerships follow.

Retailers are turning to voice assistants to make it easier for customers to shop for groceries amid strong competition. Walmart, in one case, has rolled out an offering called Walmart Voice Order by working with partners such as Google.

The feature allows consumers to use voice commands to shop for groceries. Beginning in April, shoppers will be able to say “Google, talk to Walmart” and Google Assistant will add products directly to their Walmart grocery carts. Shoppers can also manage their shopping carts on the go, as the technology is available on a host of devices, such as Android phones.

The technology uses the shopper’s past purchases to create a more personalized experience. If a shopper instructs Google Assistant to add milk to the shopping cart, for example, the feature will add the size, brand and type of milk he or she regularly chooses.

In a blog post, Walmart Senior Vice President of Digital Operations Tom Ward noted, “We know when using voice technology, customers like to add items to their cart one at a time over a few days – not complete their shopping for the week all at once. So, this capability aligns with the way customers shop.” While Walmart is rolling out the function with Google, Ward hinted that other voice assistant options will be available in the future. “We’re kicking off the work with Google, adding others to the mix as time goes on,” he noted, adding that the service would be available to more customers in the weeks to come.

Source: Voice Shopping: Walmart’s Newest Grocery Play | PYMNTS.com

SpartanNash Introduces Clean Ingredient Initiative for Private Label Products

SpartanNash Introduces Clean Ingredient Initiative for Private Label Products

Grocery and fresh food distributor SpartanNash has introduced a Clean Ingredient Initiative for its Our Family and Open Acres private label brands that focuses on simpler products with reduced ingredient lists and clean, easy-to-read labels. SpartanNash is joining a growing movement among private label product companies to tap into our Clean Living investing theme and to a lesser extent our Middle-class Squeeze and Digital Lifestyle ones as well.

While most first think of private label brands because of their more affordable price points, as Nielsen points out “private-label growth is also being driven by the wider choice that the digital economy offers to consumers and the globalization of shopping trends (media, technology, e-commerce).” We’ve seen this first hand with Thematic King Amazon as it flexes its private label products across food, furniture, apparel, and basics. Add in the growing tailwind associated with consumers shifting their food, snack and beverage preferences for healthier and good for you products, and SpartanNash has tapped a thematic trifecta.

 

In 2018, more than 425 private label products underwent packaging redesigns or reformulations to remove synthetic colors, MSG and other ingredients. This year, another 175 products will be added to the Clean Ingredient Initiative. For example, Our Family ice cream now has four SKUs that contain only four or five ingredients, including milk, sugar, cream and the appropriate flavoring. SpartanNash has also successfully partnered with its manufacturers to remove added MSG from a number of Our Family soups, and Our Family fruit and grain bars have been reformulated to remove synthetic colors.

“Consumer preferences are changing, and our store guests are looking for healthier food options, clean labels and ‘free from’ formats when shopping at their local grocery store or putting food on the table,” SpartanNash VP, Private Brands John Paul said. “Our Clean Ingredient Initiative provides them with exactly that, all while giving them the quality, budget-friendly savings and great taste they’re used to with Our Family and Open Acres products.”

Source: SpartanNash Introduces Clean Ingredient Initiative for Private Label | Progressive Grocer

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Key point inside this issue

  • We are doubling down on Dycom (DY) shares on the Thematic Leader board and adjusting our price target to $80 from $100, which still offers significant upside from our new cost basis as the 5G and gigabit fiber buildout continues over the coming quarters.

We are coming at you earlier than usual this week in part to share my thoughts on all of the economic data we received late last week.

 

Last week’s data confirms the US economy is slowing

With two-thirds of the current quarter behind now in the books, the continued move higher in the markets has all the major indices up double-digits year to date, ranging from around 11.5-12.0%% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 to nearly 18% for the small-cap heavy Russell 2000. In recent weeks we have discussed my growing concerns that the market’s melt-up hinges primarily on U.S.-China trade deal prospects as earnings expectations for this year have been moving lower, dividend cuts have been growing and the global economy continues to slow. The U.S. continues to look like the best economic house on the block even though it, too, is slowing.

On Friday, a round of IHS Markit February PMI reports showed that three of the four global economic horsemen — Japan, China, and the eurozone — were in contraction territory for the month. New orders in Japan and China improved but fell in the eurozone, which likely means those economies will continue to slug it out in the near-term especially since export orders across all three regions fell month over month. December-quarter GDP was revealed to be 2.6% sequentially, which equates to a 3.1% improvement year over year but is down compared to the 3.5% GDP reading of the September quarter and 4.2% in the June one.  Slower growth to be sure, but still growing in the December quarter.

Before we break out the bubbly, though, the IHS Markit February U.S. Manufacturing PMI fell to its lowest reading in 18 months as rates of output and new order growth softened as did inflationary pressures. This data suggest the U.S. manufacturing sector is growing at its slowest rate in several quarters, as did the February ISM Manufacturing Index reading, which slipped month over month and missed expectations. Declines were seen almost across the board for that ISM index save for new export orders, which grew modestly month over month. The new order component of the February ISM Manufacturing Index dropped to 55.5 from 58.2 in January, but candidly this line item has been all over the place the last few months. The January figure rebounded nicely from 51.3 in December, which was down sharply from 61.8 in November. This zig-zag pattern likely reflects growing uncertainty in the manufacturing economy given the pace of the global economy and uncertainty on the trade front. Generally speaking though, falling orders translate into a slower production and this means carefully watching both the ISM and IHS Markit data over the coming months.

In sum, the manufacturing economy across the four key economies continued to slow in February. On a wider, more global scale, J.P. Morgan’s Global Manufacturing PMI fell to 50.6 in February, its lowest level since June 2016. Per J.P. Morgan’s findings, “the rate of expansion in new orders stayed close to the stagnation mark,” which suggests we are not likely to see a pronounced rebound in the near-term. We see this as allowing the Fed to keep its dovish view, and as we discuss below odds are it will be joined by the European Central Bank this week.

Other data out Friday included the December readings for Personal Income & Spending and the January take on Personal Income. The key takeaway was personal income fell for the first time in more than three years during January, easily coming in below the gains expected by economists. Those pieces of data not only help explain the recent December Retail Sales miss but alongside reports of consumer credit card debt topping $1 trillion and record delinquencies for auto and student loans, point to more tepid consumer spending ahead. As I’ve shared before, that is a headwind for the overall US economy but also a tailwind for those companies, like Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST), that help consumers stretch the disposable income they do have.

We have talked quite a bit in recent Tematica Investing issues about revisions to S&P 500 2019 EPS estimates, which at last count stood at +4.7% year over year, down significantly from over +11% at the start of the December quarter. Given the rash of reports last week – more than 750 in total –  we will likely see that expected rate of growth tweaked a bit lower.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing U.S. and global economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as it has moved higher in recent weeks, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but last week we saw President Trump abruptly end the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un with no joint agreement after Kim insisted all U.S. sanctions be lifted on his country. This action spooked the market, leading some to revisit the potential for a favorable trade deal between the U.S. and China.

Measuring the success of any trade agreement will hinge on the details. Should it fail to live up to expectations, which is a distinct possibility, we could very well see a “buy the rumor, sell the news” situation arise in the stock market. As I watch for these developments to unfold, given the mismatch in the stock market between earnings and dividends vs. the market’s move thus far in 2019 I will also be watching insider selling in general but also for those companies on the Thematic Leader Board as well as the Tematica Select List. While insiders can be sellers for a variety of reasons, should we see a pronounced and somewhat across the board pick up in such activity, it could be another warning sign.

 

What to Watch This Week

This week we will see a noticeable drop in the velocity of earnings reports, but we will still get a number of data points that investors and economists will use to triangulate the speed of the current quarter’s GDP relative to the 2.6% print for the December quarter. The consensus GDP forecast for the current quarter is for a slower economy at +2.0%, but we have started to see some economists trim their forecasts as more economic data rolls in. Because that data has fallen shy of expectations, it has led the Citibank Economic Surprise Index (CESI) to once again move into negative territory and the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow current quarter forecast now sat at 0.3% as of Friday.

On the economic docket this week, we have December Construction Spending, ISM’s February Non-Manufacturing Index reading, the latest consumer credit figures and the February reports on job creation and unemployment from ADP (ADP) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With Home Depot (HD) reporting relatively mild December weather, any pronounced shortfall in December Construction Spending will likely serve to confirm the economy is on a slowing vector. Much like we did above with ISM’s February Manufacturing Index we’ll be looking into the Non-Manufacturing data to determine demand and inflation dynamics as well as the tone of the services economy.

On the jobs front, while we will be watching the numbers created, including any aberration owing to the recent federal government shutdown, it will be the wage and hours worked data that we’ll be focusing on. Wage data will show signs of any inflationary pressures, while hours worked will indicate how much labor slack there is in the economy. The consumer is in a tighter spot financially speaking, which was reflected in recent retail sales and personal spending data. Recognizing the role consumer spending plays in the overall speed of the U.S. economy, we will be scrutinizing the upcoming consumer credit data rather closely.

In addition to the hard data, we’ll also get the Fed’s latest Beige Book, which should provide a feel for how the regional economies are faring thus far in 2019. Speaking of central bankers, next Wednesday will bring the results of the next European Central Bank meeting. Given the data depicted in the February IHS Markit reports we discussed above, the probability is high the ECB will join the Fed in a more dovish tone.

While the velocity of earnings reports does indeed drop dramatically next week, there will still be several reports worth digging into, including Ross Stores (ROST), Kohl’s (KSS), Target (TGT), BJ’s Wholesale (BJ), and Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST) will also issue their latest quarterly results. Those reports combined with the ones this week, including solid results from TJX Companies (TJX) last week should offer a more complete look at consumer spending, and where that spending is occurring. Given the discussion several paragraphs above, TJX’s results last week, and the monthly sales reports from Costco, odds are quite good that Costco should serve up yet another report showcasing consumer wallet share gains.

Outside of apparel and home, reports from United Natural Foods (UNFI) and National Beverage (FIZZ) should corroborate the accelerating shift toward food and beverages that are part of our Cleaner Living investing theme. In that vein, I’ll be intrigued to see what Tematica Select List resident International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) has to say about the demand for its line of organic and natural solutions.

The same can be said with Kroger (KR) as well as its efforts to fend off Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT). Tucked inside of Kroger’s comments, we will be curious to see what the company says about digital grocery shopping and delivery. On Kroger’s last earnings conference call, Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen shared the following, “We are aggressively investing to build digital platforms because they give our customers the ability to have anything, anytime, anywhere from Kroger, and because they’re a catalyst to grow our business and improve margins in the future.” Now to see what progress has been achieved over the last 90 or so days and what Kroger has to say about the late-Friday report that Amazon will launch its own chain of supermarkets.

 

Tematica Investing

As you can see in the chart above, for the most part, our Thematic Leaders have been delivering solid performance. Shares of Costco Wholesale (COST) and Nokia (NOK) are notable laggards, but with Costco’s earnings report later this week which will also include its February same-store sales, I see the company’s business and the shares once again coming back into investor favor as it continues to win consumer wallet share. That was clearly evident in its December and January same-store sales reports. With Nokia, coming out of Mobile World Congress 2019 last week, we have confirmation that 5G is progressing, with more network launches coming and more devices coming as well in the coming quarters. We’ll continue to be patient with NOK shares.

 

Adding significantly to our position in Thematic Leader Dycom Industries

There are two positions on the leader board – Aging of the Population AMN Healthcare (AMN) and Digital Infrastructure Dycom Industries (DY) – that are in the red. The recent and sharp drop in Dycom shares follows the company’s disappointing quarterly report in which costs grew faster than 14.3% year over year increase in revenue, pressuring margins and the company’s bottom line. As we’ve come to expect this alongside the near-term continuation of those margin pressures, as you can see below, simply whacked DY shares last week, dropping them into oversold territory.

 

When we first discussed Dycom’s business, I pointed out the seasonal tendencies of its business, and that likely means some of the February winter weather brought some added disruptions as will the winter weather that is hitting parts of the country as you read this. Yet, we know that Dycom’s top customers – AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), Comcast (CMCSA) and CenturyLink (CTL) are busy expanding the footprint of their connective networks. That’s especially true with the 5G buildout efforts at AT&T and Verizon, which on a combined basis accounted for 42% of Dycom’s January quarter revenue.

Above I shared that coming out of Mobile World Congress 2019, commercial 5G deployments are likely to be a 2020 event but as we know the networks, base stations, and backhaul capabilities will need to be installed ahead of those launches. To me, this strongly suggests that Dycom’s business will improve in the coming quarters, and as that happens, it’s bound to move down the cost curve as efficiencies and other aspects of higher utilization are had. For that reason, we are using last week’s 26% drop in DY shares to double our position size in DY shares on the Thematic Leader board. This will reduce our blended cost basis to roughly $64 from the prior $82. As we buy up the shares, I’m also resetting our price target on DY shares to $80, down from the prior $100, which offers significant upside from the current share price and our blended cost basis.

If you’re having second thoughts on this decision, think of it this way – doesn’t it seem rather strange that DY shares would fall by such a degree given the coming buildout that we know is going to occur over the coming quarters? If Dycom’s customers were some small, regional operators I would have some concerns, but that isn’t the case. These customers will build out those networks, and it means Dycom will be put to work in the coming quarters, generating revenue, profits, and cash flow along the way.

In last week’s Tematica Investing I dished on Warren Buffett’s latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) shareholders. In thinking about Dycom, another Buffett-ism comes to mind – “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.” Since this is a multi-quarter buildout for Dycom, we will need to be patient, but as we know for the famous encounter between the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

  • We are doubling down on Dycom (DY) shares on the Thematic Leader board and adjusting our price target to $80 from $100, which still offers significant upside from our new cost basis as the 5G and gigabit fiber buildout continues over the coming quarters.

 

As the pace of earnings slows, over the next few weeks I’ll not only be revisiting the recent 25% drop in Aging of the Population Thematic Leader AMN Healthcare to determine if we should make a similar move like the one we are doing with Dycom, but I’ll also be taking closer looks at wireless charging company Energous Corp. (WATT) and The Alkaline Water Company (WTER). Those two respectively fall under our Disruptive Innovators and Cleaner Living investing themes. Are they worthy of making it onto the Select List or bumping one of our Thematic Leaders? We’ll see…. And as I examine these two, I’m also pouring over some candidates to fill the Guilty Pleasure vacancy on the leader board.