2019 Marks an Inflection Point in Media Consumption 

2019 Marks an Inflection Point in Media Consumption 

On the one hand, it’s official; on the other hand it comes as no surprise to us here at Tematica that “internet consumption,” which of course includes video streaming be it on Netflix, Google’s YouTube or some of the newer platforms, such as Disney+, given our Digital Lifestyle investing theme. With more streaming services from Apple and AT&T to be had plus the looming launch of 5G networks, before too long we could see “TV viewing” go the way of newspapers and magazines. Again, no real surprise, just a matter of time.

According to Zenith, daily mobile internet consumption will amount to 130 minutes per day, up from just 80 minutes in 2015. Adding 40 minutes of desktop internet use, total internet use is expected to amount to 170 minutes per day this year, compared to 167 minutes of daily TV viewing. In line with the old advertising adage “money follows eyeballs”, online advertising expenditure is also on the rise and, according to Zenith, surpassed TV ad spending for the first time in 2017.

Source: • Chart: 2019 Marks an Inflection Point in Media Consumption | Statista

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: Key Developments at Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T)

Weekly Issue: Key Developments at Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T)

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)

 

One more step to leaving the physical wallet behind with iOS 13 

One more step to leaving the physical wallet behind with iOS 13 

It’s long been thought that you leave home with four things – keys, money, wallet and your phone. Over time that thought process has shifted due to digital locks and payment systems to just your wallet and phone. We here at Tematica have been wondering for some time when personal identification, be it an identity card, drivers license, or passport, would become digitized and stored on our smartphone.

It would seem that day is finally approaching, but as with other forays into our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, we will likely see an added identify management tailwind for our Safety & Security theme as well

The Federal Ministry of the Interior has announced that it will be possible to scan German ID cards with an iPhone running iOS 13.

This follows earlier news that iPhones will be able to scan the NFC chips in Japanese ID cards and British passports

Apple originally locked the NFC reader in iPhones so that it only supported the data format for contactless payment cards, limiting use to Apple Pay. With iOS 13, Apple is removing that restriction, so that iPhones fitted with the chip will have the technical ability to read any NFC chip.

Apple still needs to approve apps on a case-by-case basis, but the existing precedents mean we can expect it to approve all official government apps for passports and ID cards. Any country that wants to be able to offer this capability to its citizens will be able to do so.

Macerkopf reported the news from Germany, noting that this will make it easier for German citizens to verify their identity online, as well as using the virtual card at airports.

Source: You can scan German ID cards in iOS 13; more countries likely 9to5Mac

Google’s game streaming Stadia service sets launch date

Google’s game streaming Stadia service sets launch date

As we brace for the second half of 2019, the growing battle between streaming video services will be joined by one for streaming gaming services. Already Apple has announced its own streaming gaming platform – Apple Arcade – and now we have the formal launch of Google’s Stadia streaming service in November.

We can also add Microsoft to that pack, which over the weekend shared that it will begin publicly testing its new videogame-streaming initiative in October. That service will allow users to stream any Xbox One game to a mobile device.

Much like streaming video service, content for streaming gaming services and price points will be crucial to converting gamers, particularly causal ones. We suspect over time higher profile titles will make their ways to these platforms, but at the outset, a lack of compelling or noteworthy content will likely mean a whimper not a roar of a start for this aspect of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.  As uptake grows over time, and much like video streaming, we can expect these streaming gaming platforms to tax existing broadband and mobile networks, spurring demand associated with our Digital Infrastructure investing theme.

Google on Thursday revealed key details of its upcoming Stadia service, which will let people stream A-list games to the Mac without having to own a high-end console or PC.

The service will launch in November in 14 different regions, among them Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., Google said. People wanting in at that point will have to pay $129 U.S. for a Founder’s Edition kit, including a Wi-Fi-connected Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, and three months of Stadia Pro plus a “Buddy Pass.” Beyond that point Pro access will cost $9.99 per month, plus the cost of individual games not included with the subscription. Some games will be cheaper under Pro than they would be on markets like Steam or the Mac App Store.

The only announced bundle title is “Destiny 2,” though others are planned, and some should be announced at next week’s E3 expo in Los Angeles. Other confirmed Stadia games — bundled or otherwise — will include the likes of “Doom Eternal,” “Thumper,” “Baldur’s Gate 3,” “Borderlands 3,” and “Mortal Kombat 11.”

“Grand Theft Auto” and “Red Dead Redemption” developer Rockstar Games is confirmed as working on Stadia projects, but has yet to make them public.

Stadia Pro guarantees streams up to 4K at 60fps, with HDR and 5.1-channel surround, so long as the gamers have a 35-megabit connection. Google is working on a free version of Stadia with lower bandwidth requirements, but that will launch sometime in 2020 with quality capped at 1080p resolution and stereo sound.

Although a Chromecast Ultra will be required for TVs, gamers will also be able to play on Pixel 3 phones and any desktop or laptop with Google’s Chrome browser.

Stadia relies on streamlined Google data center connections instead of local processors or storage. The downside to this is that Stadia games can only ever work online, even purchased ones.

Source: Google Stadia game streaming launching in November with $129 ‘Founder’s Edition’ hardware

Walmart entering the low-end tablet market as Google looks to exit

Walmart entering the low-end tablet market as Google looks to exit

Walmart is joining the ranks of the tablet market, which comes at a time when some device owners are balking at the increasing price points for smartphones. This tablet, which will have a price point that is very friendly with cash strapped consumers associated with our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme, leverages Chinese manufacturing and the Android operating system. Odds are this means the key differentiator in a crowded Android playing field for Walmart’s tablet will be the price. This helps explain why Google is pulling engineers off its tablet team, but with Apple looking to tie its streaming video service to its tablets and other iOS devices, one has to wonder if those rumors of a Walmart streaming video service that would tap our Digital Lifestyle theme have any truth to them?

Walmart Inc. is moving into iPad territory.

The world’s largest retailer plans to introduce an inexpensive, kid-friendly tablet computer under its ONN store brand, part of a broader redesign of its electronics department. The device will be made by a Chinese supplier and run on Google’s Android operating system, according to photos found on a database of wireless product applications filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

After spending last year overhauling its apparel offering, Walmart will make electronics and home goods a focus this year, according to presentations given by senior management at a recent meeting of the company’s suppliers. Rival Target Corp. last year introduced its first consumer electronics store brand, called Heyday, with products including headphones and smartphone cases. The demise of technology-focused retailers like Circuit City has opened up opportunities for other chains to grab gadget sales.

Source: Walmart (WMT) Readies Low-Priced Rival to Apple (AAPL) iPad – Bloomberg

Weekly Issue: Factors making the stock market melt up a head-scratcher

Weekly Issue: Factors making the stock market melt up a head-scratcher

Key points inside this issue

  • Our long-term price target on Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50.
  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.

 

Reading the latest from the Oracle of Omaha

Over the weekend, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, released his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). This letter has become a must-read among institutional and individual investors alike because it not only reveals changes in Berkshire’s top investment portfolio positions, but it also has contained ample comments on the economy and markets as well as an investing lesson or two.

Out of the gate, we learned that once again Team Buffett outperformed the major stock market indices in 2018. As Buffett got underway, he casually reminded readers to be buyers of “ably managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. While it may seem somewhat self-serving this sounds very much like our thematic investing strategy that looks to identify companies benefitting from structural economic, demographic, psychographic and technological changes at prices that offer commanding upside vs. potential downside.

In the past, Buffett has commented that stocks are akin to pieces of paper and it’s the businesses behind them that are the drivers of revenue and profits. It’s an idea we are very much in tune with as we view ourselves as buyers of thematically well-positioned business first, their shares second. No matter how attractive a stock’s price may be, if its business is troubled or facing thematic headwinds, it can be a tough pill to swallow.

As Buffett later noted, “On occasion, a ridiculously high purchase price for a given stock will cause a splendid business to become a poor investment — if not permanently, at least for a painfully long period.” I certainly agree with that statement because buying a stock at the wrong price can make for a painful experience. There are times, to be patient, but there are also times when the thesis behind owning a stock changes. In those times, it makes far more sense to cut bait in favor of better-positioned companies.

Buffett then shared that “prices are sky-high for businesses possessing decent long- term prospects,” which is something we’ve commented on several times in recent weeks as the stock market continued to melt up even as earnings expectations for the near term have moved lower. We’ll continue to take the advice of Buffett and focus on “calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price,” for much like Buffett and his team work for Berkshire shareholders, Tematica and I work for you, our subscribers.

Mixed in among the rest of the letter are some on Buffett’s investing history, which is always an informative read, and a quick mention that “At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders” and that it continues to “hope for an elephant-sized acquisition.” While I can’t speak to any acquisition, especially after the debacle that is now recognized as Kraft Heinz (KHC), the focus on investing across borders potentially speaks to our New Global Middle-class and Living the Life investing themes. Given Buffett’s style, I suspect Team Buffett is more likely to tap into the rising middle-class over luxury and travel.

Several times Buffett touched on his age, 88 years, as well as that of its key partner Charlie Munger, who is 95. There was no meaningful revelation on how they plan to transition the management team, but odds are that will be a topic of conversation, as will Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC) at the annual shareholder meeting that is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. More details on that can be found at the bottom of the 2018 shareholder letter.

If I had to describe the overall letter, it was a very solid one, but candidly not one of the more memorable ones. Perhaps that reflects 2018 as a whole, a year in which all major market indices fell into the red during the last quarter of the year, and a current environment that is characterized by slowing global growth.

 

More signs that the domestic economy is a-slowin’

In recent issues of Tematica Investing and in the recent Context & Perspectives pieces penned by Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins, we’ve shared how even though the U.S. economy looks like the best one on the global block, it is showing signs of slowing. We had further confirmation of that in the recent December Retail Sales Report as well as the January Industrial Production data that showed a drop in manufacturing activity. The December Durable Orders report that showed orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft dropped 0.7% added further confirmation. Moreover, the report showed a downward November revision for the category to a fall of 1.0% vs. the prior 0.6% decline.

Much the way we focus on the order data inside the monthly ISM and IHS Markit PMI reports, the order data contained inside the monthly Durable Orders report gives us a sense of what is likely to come in near-term. These declining orders combined with the January declines in Industrial Production suggest slack is growing in the manufacturing economy, which means orders for new production equipment are likely to remain soft in the near-term. 

This past Monday we received another set of data that point to a slowing U.S. economy. We learned the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) fell to -0.43 in January from +0.05 in December. This index tracks 85 indicators; we’d note that in January, 35 of those indicators made positive contributions to the index, but that 50 made negative contributions, which produced the month-over-month decline.

Before we get all nervous over that negative January reading for the CFNAI, periods of economic expansion have been associated with index values above -0.70, which means the economy continued to expand in January, just at a much slower pace compared to December. Should the CFNAI reading fall below -0.70 in February or another coming month, it would signal a contraction in the domestic economy.

In response, Buffett likely would say that he and the team will continue to manage the portfolio for the long term, and that’s very much in sync with our thematic investing time frame.

 

Watch those dividends… for increases and for cuts!

Ahead of Buffett’s shareholder letter, shares of Kraft Heinz (KHC) tumbled in a  pronounced manner following several announcements, one of which included the 35% cut in its quarterly dividend to $0.40 per share from $0.625 per share. That’s a huge disappointment given the commonplace expectation that a company is expected to pay its dividend in perpetuity. It can increase its dividend or from time to time declare a special dividend, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the cutting of a company’s dividend is a disaster its stock price. We’ve seen this when General Motors (GM) and General Electric (GE) cut their respective dividends and again last week when Kraft made a similar announcement.

Those three are rather high profile and well-owned stocks, but they aren’t the only ones that have cut quarterly dividend payments to their shareholders. In December, L Brands (LB), the company behind Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, clipped its annual dividend by 50% to $1.20 per share from $2.40 per share and its shares dropped from $35 to $24 before rebounding modestly. On the company’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call, management of Century Link (CTL)  disclosed it would be cutting the telecom service provider’s annual dividend from $2.16 to $1.00 per share. Earlier this month, postal meter and office equipment company Pitney Bowes (PBI) declared a quarterly dividend of $0.05 per share, more than 73% fall from the prior dividend of $0.1875 per share. Other dividend cuts in recent weeks were had at Owens & Minor (OMI), Manning & Napier (MN), Unique Fabricating (UFAB), County Bancorp (ICBK), and Fresh Del Monte (FDP).

What the majority of these dividend cuts have in common is a challenged business, and in some cases like that for Pitney Bowes, the management team and Board have opted to carve out a new path for its capital allocation policy. For Pitney, it means shifting the mix to favor its share buyback program over dividends given the additional $100 million authorization that was announced which upsized its program to $121 million.

As I see it, there are several lessons to be had from these dividends:

One, outsized dividend yields as was the case back in September with L Brands can signal an opportunity for dividend income-seeking investors, but it can also represent a warning sign as investors exit shares in businesses that look to have operating and/or cash flow pressures.

This means that Two, we as investors always need to do the homework to determine what the prospects for the company’s business. As we discussed above, Buffett’s latest shareholder letter reminds investors to be buyers of “ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. Through our thematic lens, it’s no surprise that L Brands and Pitney Bowes are hitting the headwinds of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, while Kraft Heinz is in the grips of the consumer shift to Cleaner Living. Perhaps Kraft should have focused on something other than cost cuts to grow its bottom line.

Third, investors make mistakes and as we saw with the plummet in the share price at Kraft Heinz, it can happen to Buffett as well. There’s no shame in making a mistake, so long as we can learn from it.

Fourth and perhaps most important, while some may look at the growing number of dividend cuts on a company by company basis, if we look at them in aggregate the pace is greater than the number of such cuts, we saw in all of 2018. While we try not to overly excited one way or another, the pace of dividend cuts is likely to spur questions over the economy and where we are in the business cycle.

 

Putting it all together

As we move into March, more than 90% of the S&P 500 group of companies will have reported their quarterly results. As those results have been increasingly tallied over the last few weeks, we’ve seen EPS expectations move lower for the coming quarters and as of Friday’ stock market close the consensus view is 2019 EPS growth for the S&P 500 will be around 4.7%. That is significantly lower than the more than 11% EPS growth that was forecasted back at the start of the December quarter.

For those keeping score, the consensus for the current quarter points to a 2% growth rate. However, we’re starting to see more analysts cut their outlooks as more figures are reported. For example, JPMorgan (JPM) now sees the current quarter clocking in at 1.5% due to slower business investment spending. For now, JP sees a pick-up in the June quarter to a 2.25% forecast. But in our view, this will hinge on what we see in the coming order data.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as has moved higher over the last 9 weeks, marking one of the best runs it has had in more than 20 years, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Sounds like a disconnect in the making to me.

Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but as I’ve been saying for some time, 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.

We will continue to tread carefully in the near-term, especially given the likelihood that following the disappointing December Retail Sales report and consumer-facing data, retailers are likely to deliver underwhelming quarterly results. Despite favorable weather in December, we saw that yesterday with Home Depot (HD),  and historically it’s been a pretty good yardstick for the consumer. In all likelihood as the remaining 10% of the S&P 500 companies report, we’re going to see further negative revisions to that current 4.7% EPS growth rate for this year I talked about.

 

Tematica Investing

A few paragraphs above, I touched on the strength of the stock market thus far in 2019, and even though concerns are mounting, we have seen pronounced moves higher in a number of the Thematic Leaders as you can see in the chart below. We’ll continue to monitor the changing landscapes and what they may bring. For example, in the coming weeks both Apple and Disney (DIS) are expected to unveil their respective streaming services, and I’ll be listening closely for to determine what this means for Digital Lifestyle leader Netflix (NFLX).

Nokia and Mobile World Congress 2019

We are two days into Mobile World Congress 2019, arguably THE mobile industry event of the year and one to watch for our Digital Lifestyle, Digital Infrastructure, and Disruptive Innovator themes. Thus far, we’ve received a number of different device and network announcements from the event.

On the device side, more 5G capable handsets have been announced as well as a number of foldable smartphones that appear to be a hybrid between a large format smartphone and a tablet. Those foldable smartphones are sporting some hefty price tags as evidenced by the $2,600 one for Huawei’s model. Interesting, but given the size of the device as well as the price point, one has to question if this is a commercially viable product or simply a concept one. Given the pushback that we are seeing with big-ticket smartphones that is resulting in consumers not upgrading their smartphones as quickly as they have in the past, odds are some of these device announcements fall more into the concept category.

On the network side, the news to center on comes from Verizon (VZ), which said it expects to have its 5G network in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019. That’s hardly what one would call a vibrant, national 5G network, and makes those commercial 5G launches really a 2020 event for the mobile carriers and consumers. It does mean that over the next several quarters, those mobile operators will continue to build out their 5G networks, which is positive for our shares of Nokia (NOK). As the 5G buildout moves beyond the U.S. into Europe and Asia, this tailwind bodes rather well for the company and helps back its longer-term targets. 

This 5G timetable was also confirmed by comments from Intel (INTC) about the timing of 5G chipsets, which are now expected to be available by the end of 2019 and are not likely to hit devices until 2020. Given the timing of CES in early January and the Mobile World Congress 2020 in February, odds are it means we will see a number of device announcements in early 2020 that will hit shelves in the second half of the year. Many have been wondering when Apple (AAPL) will have a 5G powered iPhone, and based on the various chipset and network comments, odds are the first time we’ll hear about such a device is September-October 2020. 

If history is to be repeated, we are likely to see something similar to what we saw with the first 3G and 4G handsets. By that, we mean a poor consumer experience at least until the 5G networks are truly national in scale and the chipsets become more efficient. One of the issues with each additional layer of mobile technology is it requires additional radio frequency (RF) chips, which in turn not only consume more power but also present internal design issues that out of the gate could limit the size of the battery. Generally speaking, early versions of these new smartphones tend to have less than desirable up-times. This is another reason to think Apple will not be one of those out of the gate 5G smartphone companies, but rather it will repeat its past strategy of bringing its product to market at the tipping point for the chipsets and network deployments. 

Circling back to our Nokia shares, while there are just over a handful of 5G smartphones that have been announced, some of which are expected to become available later this year, over the coming 18 months we will see a far greater number of 5G devices. This should drive Nokia’s high margin, IP licensing business in the coming quarters. As this occurs, Nokia’s mobile infrastructure should continue to benefit from the growing number of 5G networks being built out, not only here in the US but elsewhere as well.

  • Our long-term price target on Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50

 

Universal Display shares get lit up

Last week I previewed the upcoming earnings report from Select List resident Universal Display (OLED) and following that news the shares were off with a bang! Universal posted earnings of $0.40 per share, $0.08 per share better than the consensus expectations, on revenue that matched the Wall Street consensus of $70 million. Considering the tone of the smartphone market, I view the company’s quarterly results as “not as bad a feared” and, no surprise, the guidance reflects the continued adoption of organic light-emitting displays across a growing number of devices and vendors. For the current year, Universal has guided revenue to $325 million-$350 million, which is likely to be a step function higher as we move through the coming quarters reflecting the traditional year-end debut of new smartphones, TVs and other devices.

Longer-term, we know Apple (AAPL) and others are looking to migrate more of their product portfolios to organic light-emitting diode displays. This shift will drive capacity increases in the coming several quarters — and recent reports on China’s next round of display investing seems to confirm this happening per its latest Five-Year Plan. As we have seen in the past, this can lead to periods of oversupply and pricing issues for the displays, but the longer-term path as witnessed with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is one of greater adoption. 

As display pricing improves as capacity grows, new applications for the technology tend to arise. Remember that while we are focused on smartphones and TVs in the near-term, other applications include automotive lighting and general lighting. Again, just like we saw with LEDs.

  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.

 

 

Weekly Issue: Favorable signposts have us adding a call option position

Weekly Issue: Favorable signposts have us adding a call option position

Key points inside this issue

  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.
  • We are issuing a Buy on and adding the Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700) that closed last night at 0.38 to the Options+ Select List with 0.20 stop loss.
  • We will continue to hold the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) September 20, 2019, 10.00 calls (DFRG190920C00010000) that closed last night at 1.00, but we will boost our stop loss to 0.80, which will ensure a minimum return of 33% based on our 0.60 entry point.

 

Reading the latest from the Oracle of Omaha

Over the weekend, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, released his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). This letter has become a must-read among institutional and individual investors alike because it not only reveals changes in Berkshire’s top investment portfolio positions, but it also has contained ample comments on the economy and markets as well as an investing lesson or two.

Out of the gate, we learned that once again Team Buffett outperformed the major stock market indices in 2018. As Buffett got underway, he casually reminded readers to be buyers of “ably managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. While it may seem somewhat self-serving this sounds very much like our thematic investing strategy that looks to identify companies benefitting from structural economic, demographic, psychographic and technological changes at prices that offer commanding upside vs. potential downside.

In the past, Buffett has commented that stocks are akin to pieces of paper and it’s the businesses behind them that are the drivers of revenue and profits. It’s an idea we are very much in tune with as we view ourselves as buyers of thematically well-positioned business first, their shares second. No matter how attractive a stock’s price may be, if its business is troubled or facing thematic headwinds, it can be a tough pill to swallow.

As Buffett later noted, “On occasion, a ridiculously high purchase price for a given stock will cause a splendid business to become a poor investment — if not permanently, at least for a painfully long period.” I certainly agree with that statement because buying a stock at the wrong price can make for a painful experience. There are times, to be patient, but there are also times when the thesis behind owning a stock changes. In those times, it makes far more sense to cut bait in favor of better-positioned companies.

Buffett then shared that “prices are sky-high for businesses possessing decent long- term prospects,” which is something we’ve commented on several times in recent weeks as the stock market continued to melt up even as earnings expectations for the near term have moved lower. We’ll continue to take the advice of Buffett and focus on “calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price,” for much like Buffett and his team work for Berkshire shareholders, Tematica and I work for you, our subscribers.

Mixed in among the rest of the letter are some on Buffett’s investing history, which is always an informative read, and a quick mention that “At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders” and that it continues to “hope for an elephant-sized acquisition.” While I can’t speak to any acquisition, especially after the debacle that is now recognized as Kraft Heinz (KHC), the focus on investing across borders potentially speaks to our New Global Middle-class and Living the Life investing themes. Given Buffett’s style, I suspect Team Buffett is more likely to tap into the rising middle-class over luxury and travel.

Several times Buffett touched on his age, 88 years, as well as that of its key partner Charlie Munger, who is 95. There was no meaningful revelation on how they plan to transition the management team, but odds are that will be a topic of conversation, as will Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC) at the annual shareholder meeting that is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. More details on that can be found at the bottom of the 2018 shareholder letter.

If I had to describe the overall letter, it was a very solid one, but candidly not one of the more memorable ones. Perhaps that reflects 2018 as a whole, a year in which all major market indices fell into the red during the last quarter of the year, and a current environment that is characterized by slowing global growth.

 

More signs that the domestic economy is a-slowin’

In recent issues of Tematica Investing and in the recent Context & Perspectives pieces penned by Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins, we’ve shared how even though the U.S. economy looks like the best one on the global block, it is showing signs of slowing. We had further confirmation of that in the recent December Retail Sales Report as well as the January Industrial Production data that showed a drop in manufacturing activity. The December Durable Orders report that showed orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft dropped 0.7% added further confirmation. Moreover, the report showed a downward November revision for the category to a fall of 1.0% vs. the prior 0.6% decline.

Much the way we focus on the order data inside the monthly ISM and IHS Markit PMI reports, the order data contained inside the monthly Durable Orders report gives us a sense of what is likely to come in near-term. These declining orders combined with the January declines in Industrial Production suggest slack is growing in the manufacturing economy, which means orders for new production equipment are likely to remain soft in the near-term. 

This past Monday we received another set of data that point to a slowing U.S. economy. We learned the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) fell to -0.43 in January from +0.05 in December. This index tracks 85 indicators; we’d note that in January, 35 of those indicators made positive contributions to the index, but that 50 made negative contributions, which produced the month-over-month decline.

Before we get all nervous over that negative January reading for the CFNAI, periods of economic expansion have been associated with index values above -0.70, which means the economy continued to expand in January, just at a much slower pace compared to December. Should the CFNAI reading fall below -0.70 in February or another coming month, it would signal a contraction in the domestic economy.

In response, Buffett likely would say that he and the team will continue to manage the portfolio for the long term, and that’s very much in sync with our thematic investing time frame.

 

Watch those dividends… for increases and for cuts!

Ahead of Buffett’s shareholder letter, shares of Kraft Heinz (KHC) tumbled in a  pronounced manner following several announcements, one of which included the 35% cut in its quarterly dividend to $0.40 per share from $0.625 per share. That’s a huge disappointment given the commonplace expectation that a company is expected to pay its dividend in perpetuity. It can increase its dividend or from time to time declare a special dividend, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the cutting of a company’s dividend is a disaster its stock price. We’ve seen this when General Motors (GM) and General Electric (GE) cut their respective dividends and again last week when Kraft made a similar announcement.

Those three are rather high profile and well-owned stocks, but they aren’t the only ones that have cut quarterly dividend payments to their shareholders. In December, L Brands (LB), the company behind Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, clipped its annual dividend by 50% to $1.20 per share from $2.40 per share and its shares dropped from $35 to $24 before rebounding modestly. On the company’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call, management of Century Link (CTL)  disclosed it would be cutting the telecom service provider’s annual dividend from $2.16 to $1.00 per share. Earlier this month, postal meter and office equipment company Pitney Bowes (PBI) declared a quarterly dividend of $0.05 per share, more than 73% fall from the prior dividend of $0.1875 per share. Other dividend cuts in recent weeks were had at Owens & Minor (OMI), Manning & Napier (MN), Unique Fabricating (UFAB), County Bancorp (ICBK), and Fresh Del Monte (FDP).

What the majority of these dividend cuts have in common is a challenged business, and in some cases like that for Pitney Bowes, the management team and Board have opted to carve out a new path for its capital allocation policy. For Pitney, it means shifting the mix to favor its share buyback program over dividends given the additional $100 million authorization that was announced which upsized its program to $121 million.

As I see it, there are several lessons to be had from these dividends:

One, outsized dividend yields as was the case back in September with L Brands can signal an opportunity for dividend income-seeking investors, but it can also represent a warning sign as investors exit shares in businesses that look to have operating and/or cash flow pressures.

This means that Two, we as investors always need to do the homework to determine what the prospects for the company’s business. As we discussed above, Buffett’s latest shareholder letter reminds investors to be buyers of “ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. Through our thematic lens, it’s no surprise that L Brands and Pitney Bowes are hitting the headwinds of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, while Kraft Heinz is in the grips of the consumer shift to Cleaner Living. Perhaps Kraft should have focused on something other than cost cuts to grow its bottom line.

Third, investors make mistakes and as we saw with the plummet in the share price at Kraft Heinz, it can happen to Buffett as well. There’s no shame in making a mistake, so long as we can learn from it.

Fourth and perhaps most important, while some may look at the growing number of dividend cuts on a company by company basis, if we look at them in aggregate the pace is greater than the number of such cuts, we saw in all of 2018. While we try not to overly excited one way or another, the pace of dividend cuts is likely to spur questions over the economy and where we are in the business cycle.

 

Putting it all together

As we move into March, more than 90% of the S&P 500 group of companies will have reported their quarterly results. As those results have been increasingly tallied over the last few weeks, we’ve seen EPS expectations move lower for the coming quarters and as of Friday’ stock market close the consensus view is 2019 EPS growth for the S&P 500 will be around 4.7%. That is significantly lower than the more than 11% EPS growth that was forecasted back at the start of the December quarter.

For those keeping score, the consensus for the current quarter points to a 2% growth rate. However, we’re starting to see more analysts cut their outlooks as more figures are reported. For example, JPMorgan (JPM) now sees the current quarter clocking in at 1.5% due to slower business investment spending. For now, JP sees a pick-up in the June quarter to a 2.25% forecast. But in our view, this will hinge on what we see in the coming order data.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as has moved higher over the last 9 weeks, marking one of the best runs it has had in more than 20 years, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Sounds like a disconnect in the making to me.

Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but as I’ve been saying for some time, 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.

We will continue to tread carefully in the near-term, especially given the likelihood that following the disappointing December Retail Sales report and consumer-facing data, retailers are likely to deliver underwhelming quarterly results. Despite favorable weather in December, we saw that yesterday with Home Depot (HD),  and historically it’s been a pretty good yardstick for the consumer. In all likelihood as the remaining 10% of the S&P 500 companies report, we’re going to see further negative revisions to that current 4.7% EPS growth rate for this year I talked about.

 

Tematica Investing

A few paragraphs above, I touched on the strength of the stock market thus far in 2019, and even though concerns are mounting, we have seen pronounced moves higher in a number of the Thematic Leaders as you can see in the chart below. We’ll continue to monitor the changing landscapes and what they may bring. For example, in the coming weeks both Apple and Disney (DIS) are expected to unveil their respective streaming services, and I’ll be listening closely for to determine what this means for Digital Lifestyle leader Netflix (NFLX).

Nokia and Mobile World Congress 2019

We are two days into Mobile World Congress 2019, arguably THE mobile industry event of the year and one to watch for our Digital Lifestyle, Digital Infrastructure, and Disruptive Innovator themes. Thus far, we’ve received a number of different device and network announcements from the event.

On the device side, more 5G capable handsets have been announced as well as a number of foldable smartphones that appear to be a hybrid between a large format smartphone and a tablet. Those foldable smartphones are sporting some hefty price tags as evidenced by the $2,600 one for Huawei’s model. Interesting, but given the size of the device as well as the price point, one has to question if this is a commercially viable product or simply a concept one. Given the pushback that we are seeing with big-ticket smartphones that is resulting in consumers not upgrading their smartphones as quickly as they have in the past, odds are some of these device announcements fall more into the concept category.

On the network side, the news to center on comes from Verizon (VZ), which said it expects to have its 5G network in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019. That’s hardly what one would call a vibrant, national 5G network, and makes those commercial 5G launches really a 2020 event for the mobile carriers and consumers. It does mean that over the next several quarters, those mobile operators will continue to build out their 5G networks, which is positive for our shares of Nokia (NOK). As the 5G buildout moves beyond the U.S. into Europe and Asia, this tailwind bodes rather well for the company and helps back its longer-term targets. 

This 5G timetable was also confirmed by comments from Intel (INTC) about the timing of 5G chipsets, which are now expected to be available by the end of 2019 and are not likely to hit devices until 2020. Given the timing of CES in early January and the Mobile World Congress 2020 in February, odds are it means we will see a number of device announcements in early 2020 that will hit shelves in the second half of the year. Many have been wondering when Apple (AAPL) will have a 5G powered iPhone, and based on the various chipset and network comments, odds are the first time we’ll hear about such a device is September-October 2020. 

If history is to be repeated, we are likely to see something similar to what we saw with the first 3G and 4G handsets. By that, we mean a poor consumer experience at least until the 5G networks are truly national in scale and the chipsets become more efficient. One of the issues with each additional layer of mobile technology is it requires additional radio frequency (RF) chips, which in turn not only consume more power but also present internal design issues that out of the gate could limit the size of the battery. Generally speaking, early versions of these new smartphones tend to have less than desirable up-times. This is another reason to think Apple will not be one of those out of the gate 5G smartphone companies, but rather it will repeat its past strategy of bringing its product to market at the tipping point for the chipsets and network deployments. 

Circling back to our Nokia shares, while there are just over a handful of 5G smartphones that have been announced, some of which are expected to become available later this year, over the coming 18 months we will see a far greater number of 5G devices. This should drive Nokia’s high margin, IP licensing business in the coming quarters. As this occurs, Nokia’s mobile infrastructure should continue to benefit from the growing number of 5G networks being built out, not only here in the US but elsewhere as well.

  • Our long-term price target on Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50

 

Universal Display shares get lit up

Last week I previewed the upcoming earnings report from Select List resident Universal Display (OLED) and following that news the shares were off with a bang! Universal posted earnings of $0.40 per share, $0.08 per share better than the consensus expectations, on revenue that matched the Wall Street consensus of $70 million. Considering the tone of the smartphone market, I view the company’s quarterly results as “not as bad a feared” and, no surprise, the guidance reflects the continued adoption of organic light-emitting displays across a growing number of devices and vendors. For the current year, Universal has guided revenue to $325 million-$350 million, which is likely to be a step function higher as we move through the coming quarters reflecting the traditional year-end debut of new smartphones, TVs and other devices.

Longer-term, we know Apple (AAPL) and others are looking to migrate more of their product portfolios to organic light-emitting diode displays. This shift will drive capacity increases in the coming several quarters — and recent reports on China’s next round of display investing seems to confirm this happening per its latest Five-Year Plan. As we have seen in the past, this can lead to periods of oversupply and pricing issues for the displays, but the longer-term path as witnessed with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is one of greater adoption. 

As display pricing improves as capacity grows, new applications for the technology tend to arise. Remember that while we are focused on smartphones and TVs in the near-term, other applications include automotive lighting and general lighting. Again, just like we saw with LEDs.

  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.

 

Tematica Options+

It would have been wonderful to have been long Universal Display (OLED) calls, but again given what we’ve heard in recent weeks about the tone of the smartphone market, its results were far more “not as bad as feared” and I suspect in the short-term drove a fair amount of short covering. I still like the long-term prospects for the adoption of the technology, and it’s something to watch as adoption heats up.

By comparison, after months of what seemed like modest forward progress coming out of Mobile World Congress, the pace of 5G is about to get into gear from both a device and network perspective. As we move through 2019, that pace is poised to accelerate even further, which should bring favorable operating leverage to both businesses tucked inside Nokia.

For that reason, I am adding the Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700) that closed last night at 0.38 to the Options+ Select List. The duration should capture that expected swell in 5G activity, and as we move through the coming months, I’ll consider a layered strategy that could include adding 2020 calls to the mix. Given the time span, we’ll set a wider stop loss berth than usual at 0.20.

 

 

Verizon’s 5G in 30 US cities by end of 2019

Verizon’s 5G in 30 US cities by end of 2019

As we enter Mobile World Congress 2019, arguably the mobile event of the year, 5G network and device launch details are coming into greater focus. Verizon is taking the early lead in the US staking out 5G to 30 cities in the US by the end of 2019. Of course, 30 cities is hardly national coverage, which means a continued deployment for this aspect of our Digital Infrastructure investing theme well into 2020 at least for the US if not into 2021. Factor in the competitive response from AT&T and the soon to be combined T-Mobile USA and Sprint, and it means the likely tipping point for 5G is looking increasingly like the second half of 2020. From an iPhone perspective, even though Samsung and Motorola have announced they will have devices ready by mid-2019,  this 5G network timetable means we should not be expecting any 5G news from Apple this year, but rather its annual iPhone event in September-October of 2020.

Verizon on Thursday said it’s working on deploying 5G to some extent in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019, another hint that the technology won’t appear in iPhones until 2020.

The first parts of Verizon’s 5G network should be up by mid-2019 though, since the carrier is the exclusive launch partner for the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

AT&T and T-Mobile are also working on 5G deployments. Neither carrier is expected to get very far by the end of 2019 however, owing to partly to lags in equipment. There are also relatively few 5G-ready devices on the market, offering little incentive to speed up.

Multiple reports have pointed to Apple waiting until 2020 to ship 5G-capable iPhones. The company’s preferred modem maker, Intel, is unlikely to have a 5G chip ready until that timeframe.

Source: Verizon says 5G coming to 30 US cities by end of 2019

Weekly Issue: Streaming Services and the Middle Class Squeeze

Weekly Issue: Streaming Services and the Middle Class Squeeze

Key points inside this issue

  • Stocks continue to melt higher on hopes, but details will matter in the end
  • Our price target on Middle-Class Squeeze company Costco Wholesale (COST) remains $250.
  • Netflix: Mark your calendars for Apple and Disney events
  • Taking a look at LendingClub (LC) shares as consumer debt climbs

 

Sorry, we’re a day late with your weekly issue. I’m just back from InsideETFs 2019, the industry event for the exchange-traded (ETF) industry. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended the event, and attendees continue to hear about the uptake of ETFs, as well as the growing number of differentiated strategies to be had. Some, in my opinion, are faddish in nature, looking to capture assets even though their strategies may not be ones that survive more than a few years. We’ve got a long issue this week, so I’ll suffice to say that such ETFs are not thematic investing, but rather trend investing and we’re already starting to see several of those older trend products being repositioned to something else.

As we close out this week, we’ll be halfway through the first quarter of 2019. Hard to believe, as we have yet to go through the swarm earnings reports from retailers, but it’s true. Given what appears to be the rollbacking of items that weighed on the stock market during the last few months of 2018, we’ve seen all the major stock market indices rebound hard, even though the global economy continues to slow. Once again, this has made the US the best house in the neighborhood, which has likely bid up assets and made the dollar a headwind to multinational companies in the process. As we are fonding of saying, the devil is in the details and that includes any would be progress on US-China trade and Congress with immigration reform. We remain cautiously optimistic, especially on the China trade front, but recognize that more time is likely to be needed until a Trump-sized “big deal” can be reached.

As we get set for the second half of the quarter, we here at Tematica will continue to not only watch the data and our Thematic Signals to assess what’s the next likely step for the market from here, but also the happenings in Washington on trade and infrastructure.

 

Tematica Investing

Odds are, the Thematic Leaders have seen some lift from the sharp rebound in the market thus far in 2019. As we can see in the chart above, several of them are going gangbusters, including Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), Netflix (NFLX), Alibaba (BABA) and Axon Enterprises (AXXN). This morning we’ll get the first Retail Sales report since before the federal government shutdown, and in my view, it will more than likely continue to show what it did during all of 2018 – digital shopping taking share and Middle-Class Squeeze leader Costco Warehouse (COST) continuing to win consumer wallet share.

On a reported basis, Costco’s January same-store sales rose 6.6% (7.3% excluding the impact of gasoline prices and foreign exchange). Exiting the month, Costco operated 768 warehouse locations vs. 746 this time last year, a 3% year over year, which reflects its stated path to open more locations in 2019, allowing for the steady growth of its high margin membership fee revenue stream. In my view, this lays the groundwork for a favorable earnings report from Costco on March 7, which is also when it will publish its February sales results.

  • Our price target on Middle-Class Squeeze company Costco Wholesale (COST) remains $250.

 

Netflix: Mark your calendars for Apple and Disney

While we have our calendars out and are marking them for that upcoming Costco date I mentioned early, let’s also circle March 25th, which is the rumored date of Apple’s next event. Per the Apple rumor mill, the company will not only showcase its new news subscription service (say that three times), but also unveil its video service as well. This video service falls into the category of one of the best, worst kept secrets, given the number of deals it has inked for original shows and movies. The news subscription service, which is expected to be called Apple News Magazines, comes after Apple acquired Texture, the would-be Netflix (NFLX) of magazines last year.

While we could see a new device or two, this event will be focused primarily on Apple’s Services business, which it is using to further its position inside our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.  Much like Proctor & Gamble’s (PG) Gillette razor blade business, I would not be surprised if Apple adopts a similar mindset with its devices being the razor that gets replaced periodically, while its far more profitable Services business is the one that people consume on a frequent basis.

Soon after Apple’s event, Disney will hold its annual Investor Day on April 11th at which it is expected to unveil its much discussed, but yet to be seen Disney streaming service dubbed Disney+. Given its robust library of films, content, and characters, Disney should not be underestimated on this front, and in my view much like Apple and its Services business, success with Disney+ could change the way Wall Street values DIS shares. Key items to watch will be the Disney+ price point, original content rollout, and subscriber growth.

Stepping back, if one were to argue that we are on the path to a crowd of streaming services between Netflix, Amazon (AMZN), Hulu, CBS, NBC, AT&T (T), and now Apple and Disney, I would have to agree. In many ways, we’re heading for cable-TV without the cable box, but on an ala carte basis. While we’ve argued that consumers will go to where there is great content, the more streaming services there are the more likely we see the proliferation of good or not so good content. The risk they run is that just like cable channels that need to be filled with content, so too will their streaming services. Also too, one unknown is how many services will a person subscribe to? Past a certain point, consumers will balk, especially if all they’ve succeeded in doing is replicating that high cable bill they sought to originally sought to escape.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching the unveiling and uptake of these new services from Apple and Disney with an eye for what it may mean for Digital Lifestyle company Netflix (NFLX). One interesting item to watch will be to see what is actually included in the Disney and Apple services at launch and over time. Both companies are rumored to be working on streaming gaming services as are Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL), which to date is something Netflix has resisted at least publicly. If Apple were to bundle a gaming, video and news service along with Apple Music into one digital content bundle, that would offer some consumer wallet leverage over other single, stand-alone services.

 

Taking a look at LendingClub shares

Earlier this week, Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins posted a Thematic Signal for our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme following the news that a record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments. Lenore went on to show some additional data that consumer loans from banks are in contraction mode, which as we know is a sign the US economy is not going gangbusters.

What we are seeing is the consumer looking to get their financial house in order, most likely after ringing up credit card, auto loan and student debt over the last several quarters. A new report from LendingTree (TREE) points to total credit card debt having climbed to more than $1 trillion in under five years, with more people using personal loans to manage existing debt. This has led the amount owed on personal loans to double what it was five years ago and the number of outstanding loans to rise some 50% in the last three years. According to the report’s findings, managing existing debt was the most popular reason for a personal loan, representing 61% of all loan requests in 2018. Of that percentage, 39% of borrowers plan to use their loans to consolidate debt, while 22% planned to use it to refinance credit cards.

From a stock detective’s point of view, the question to ask is what company is poised to benefit from this aspect of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme?

One candidate is LendingClub (LC), which operates an online credit marketplace that connects borrowers and investors in the US. It went public a few years ago and was heralded as a disruptive business for consumers and businesses to obtain credit based on its digital product offering. That marketplace facilitates various types of loan products for consumers and small businesses, including unsecured personal loans, unsecured education and patient finance loans, auto refinance loans, and unsecured small business loans. The company also provides an opportunity to the investor to invest in a range of loans based on term and credit.

Last year 78% of its $575 million in revenue was derived from loan origination transaction fees derived from its platform’s role in accepting and deciding on applications on behalf of the company’s bank partners. More than 50 banks—ranging in total assets of less than $100 million to more than $100 billion—have taken advantage of LendingClub’s partnership program.

LendingClub’s second largest revenue stream is derived from investors fees, which include servicing fees for various services, including servicing and collection efforts and matching available loans with capital and management fees from investment funds and other managed accounts, gains on sales of whole loans, interest income earned and fair value gains/losses from loans held on the company’s balance sheet.

In the past LendingClub was tainted with uncertainty given several investigations, but in mid-December, it settled with the SEC and DOJ, with the SEC stating:

“The SEC’s Enforcement Division determined not to recommend charges against LendingClub Corporation, which promptly self-reported its executives’ misconduct following a review initiated by its board of directors, thoroughly remediated, and provided extraordinary cooperation with the agency’s investigation.”

The SEC’s comments are a positive affirmation of the company’s internal procedures and policies, which also helps reduce the potential negative impact from the still-remaining Federal Trade Commission complaint. The FTC’s complaint against LendingClub charged it has misled consumers and has been deducting hidden fees from loan proceeds issued to borrowers.

Those recent developments have improved the company’s risk profile at a time when its core business has been growing given Middle-Class Squeeze pains being felt by more consumers. According to data TransUnion, subprime personal loan balances have been climbing since 2014 and are forecast to increase 20% this year to a record $156.3 billion.

Here’s the thing, the year-end shopping season isn’t just for shopping,  it’s also the seasonally strongest time of year for subprime loan originations, which according to TransUnion rose to 5 million loans at the end of 2018. That sets up what is likely to be a favorable December quarter earnings report from LendingClub when it issues those results next week (Tuesday, Feb. 19). The thing is I continue to see far more upside to be had with Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale, which is not only growing its very profitable membership fee income stream the company is also a dividend payer.