Tematica Investing: Thematic Tailwinds for 2019 and Scaling into AXON

Tematica Investing: Thematic Tailwinds for 2019 and Scaling into AXON

 

Key Points Inside this Issue:

Last Friday’s favorable December Employment Report showed the domestic economy is not falling off a cliff and comments by Fed Chair Jay Powell reflected that the central bank will be patient with monetary policy as it watches how the economy performs. Those two things kicked the market off on its most recent three-day winning streak as of last night’s close. In many ways, Powell gave the market what it was looking for when he shared the Fed will remain data dependent when it looks at the economy and its next step with monetary policy.

Taking a few steps back, we’ve all experienced the market volatility over the last several weeks as it contends with a host of issues that we here at Tematica have laid out through much of the December quarter. These include:

  • U.S.-China trade issues
  • The slowing economy
  • A Fed that could boost rates twice in 2019 and continues to unwind its balance sheet
  • Brexit and political uncertainty in the Eurozone
  • And more recently the government shutdown.

These factors have led investors to question growth prospects for the global as well as the domestic economy and earnings in 2019.

Powell’s comments potentially take one of those issues off the table at least in the short-term. If the economy continues to deliver job creation as we saw in December, with some of the best year-over-year wage gains we’ve seen in years, before too long the Fed-related conversation could very well turn from two rate hikes to three.

Currently, that isn’t what the market is expecting.

The reason it isn’t is that outside of the December jobs report, data from ISM and IHS Markit continued to show a decelerating global and U.S. economy. With new orders and backlog levels falling, as well as pricing-related data, it likely means we won’t see a pronounced pickup in the January data. The JPMorgan Global Composite Output Index for December delivered its lowest reading since September 2016 due principally to the slowdown in the eurozone. Rates of expansion slowed in Germany (66-month low) and Spain (three-month low), while Italy stagnated. China, the UK, and Brazil all saw modest growth accelerations.

 

Despite the month over month declines in the December data for the US, it was the best performer on a relative basis even though the IHS Markit Composite PMI reading for the month hit a 15-month low. A more sobering view was shared by Chris Williamson, Chief Business Economist at IHS Markit who said:

“Manufacturers reported a weakened pace of expansion at the end of 2018, and grew less upbeat about prospects for 2019. Output and order books grew at the slowest rates for over a year and optimism about the outlook slumped to its gloomiest for over two years.”

That should give the Fed some room to hold off boosting rates, but it also confirms the economy is decelerating, which will likely have revenue and earnings guidance repercussions in the upcoming December-quarter earnings season.

There are several catalysts that could drive both the economy and the stock market higher in the coming months. These include a “good deal” resolution to the U.S.-China trade situation and forward movement in Washington on infrastructure spending. This week, the US and China have met on trade and it appears those conversations have paved the way for further discussions in the coming weeks. A modest positive that has helped drive the stock market higher this week, but thus far concrete details remain scant.

Such details are not likely to emerge for at least several weeks, which means the next major catalyst for the stock market will be the upcoming December quarter earnings season that begins in nine trading days.

 

Earnings expectations are being revised lower

Facing a number of risks and uncertainties over the last several weeks, investors have once again questioned growth prospects for both the economy and earnings growth for 2019. The following two charts – one of the Citibank Economic Surprise Index and one showing the aggregate profit margin for the S&P 500 companies – depict what investors are grappling with weaker than expected economic data at a time when corporate operating margins have hit the highest levels in over 20 years.

While expectations for growth in both the domestic economy and earnings for the S&P 500 have come in compared to forecasts from just a few months ago, the current view per The Wall Street Journal’s Economic Forecasting Survey calls for 2019 GDP near 2.3% (down from 3.0% in 2018) with the S&P 500 group of companies growing their collective EPS by 7.4% year over year in 2019.

 

Here’s the thing, in recent weeks, analysts lowered their earnings estimates for companies in the S&P 500 for the December quarter by roughly 4% to $40.93. The Q4 bottom-up EPS estimate (which is an aggregation of the median EPS estimates of all the companies in the index) dropped by 4.5% to $40.63. In the chart below, you can see this means quarter over quarter, December quarter earnings are expected to drop breaking the typical pattern of earnings growth into the last quarter of the year. What you can’t see is that marks the largest cut to quarterly S&P 500 EPS estimates in over a year.

 

 

Getting back to that 7.4% rate of earnings growth that is currently forecasted for 2019, I’d call out that it too has been revised down from 9% earlier in the December quarter. That new earnings forecast is a far cry from 21.7% in 2018, which was in part fueled by a stronger economy as well as the benefits of tax reform that was passed in late 2017. As we all know, there that was a one-time bump to corporate bottom lines that will not be repeated this year or in subsequent ones. The conundrum that investors are facing is with the market barometer that is the S&P 500 currently trading at 15.9x consensus 2018 EPS of $161.54, the factors listed above have investors asking what the right market multiple based on 2019’s consensus EPS of $173.45 should be?

And while most investors don’t “buy the market,” its valuation and earnings growth are a yardstick by which investors judge individual stocks.

 

Thematic tailwinds will continue to drive profits and stock prices

One of the key principles to valuing stocks is that companies delivering stronger EPS growth warrant a premium valuation. Of course, in today’s stock buyback rampant world, that means ferreting out those companies that are growing their net income. My preference has been to zero in on what is going on with a company’s operating profit and operating margins given that their vector and velocity are the prime drivers of earnings. That was especially needed last year given the widespread bottom-line benefits of tax reform.

At the heart of it, the question is what is driving the business?

As I’ve shared before, sector classifications don’t speak to that as they are a grouping of companies by certain characteristics rather than the catalysts that are driving their businesses. As we’ve seen before, some companies, such as Amazon (AMZN) or Apple (AAPL) capitalize on those catalysts, while others fail to do so in a timely manner if at all. Sears (SHLD), JC Penney (JCP) are easy call outs, but so are Toys R Us, Bon-Ton Stores, Sports Authority, Blue Apron (APRN), and Snap (SNAP) to name just over a handful.

Very different, and we can see the difference in comparing revenue and profit growth as well as stock prices. The ones that are performing are responding to the changing landscapes across the economic, demographic, psychographic, technological, regulatory and other playing fields they face. In short, they are riding the thematic tailwinds that we here at Tematica have identified. As a reminder those themes are:

 

As we move into 2019, I continue to see the tailwinds associated with those themes continuing to blow hard. Despite all the vain attempts to fight it temporarily, there is no slowing down the aging process. Consumers continue to flock to better for you alternatives, and as you’ll see below that has led Thematic Leader Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) to bring a new offering to market.

As we saw this past holiday shopping season, consumers are flocking more and more to digital shopping while hours spent streaming content continue to thwart broadcast TV and the box office. This year 5G networks and devices will become a reality as AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and others launch those commercial networks. The legalization of cannabis continues, and consumers continue to consume chocolate, alcohol and other Guilty Pleasures.

Whether you are Marriott International (MAR), Facebook (FB), British Airways or the Bridgeport School System, cyber threats continue to grow and as we saw last night during the presidential address and Democratic response, border security be it through a wall, technology or other means is a pain point that needs to be addressed. While the last two monthly Employment Reports have shown some of the best wage gains in years, Middle-class Squeeze consumers continue to face a combination of higher debt and interest rates as well as rising healthcare costs and the need to save for their golden years that will weigh on the ability to spend.

Like any set of winds, there will be times when some blow harder than others. For example, as we peer into the coming year the launch of 5G networks and gigabit ethernet will likely see the Digital Infrastructure tailwind accelerate in the first half of the year as network and data center operators utilize the services of companies like Thematic Leader Dycom Industries (DY) to build the physical networks. Some tailwinds, such as those associated with Aging of the Population, Clean Living and Middle-class Squeeze are likely to be more persistent over the coming year. Other tailwinds will gust hard at times almost seemingly out of nowhere reminding that they have been there all along. Given the nature of high profile cyber attacks and other threats, that’s likely to once again be the case with Safety & Security.

The bottom line is this – the impact to be had of the tailwinds associated with our 10 investment themes will continue to be felt in 2019. They will continue to influence consumer and business behavior, altering the playing field and forcing companies to either respond or not. The ones that are capitalizing on that changing playing field and are delivering pronounced profit growth are the ones investors should be focusing on.

 

TEMATICA INVESTING 

Scaling into AAXN, and updates on NFLX, CMG, and DFRG

As I discussed above, the December quarter was one of the most challenging periods for the stock market in some time. Even though we are just over a handful of days into 2019, we’re seeing the thematic tailwinds blow again on the Thematic Leaders with 9 of the 11 positions ahead of the S&P 500. Yes, we’re looking pretty good so far but it’s too early in the year to start patting our backs, especially with the upcoming earnings season. Odds are Apple’s (AAPL) negative preannouncement last week won’t be the only sign of misery to be had, and that’s why I’m keeping the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) active for the time being. As I shared with you last week, while Apple and others are contending with a maturing smartphone market, I continue to like the long-term Digital Lifestyle aspects as it moves into streaming content and subscription-related businesses.

Of those 9 companies that are ahead of the S&P 500, as you can see in the table above, there are several that are significantly outperforming the market in the brief time that is 2019. These include Netflix (NFLX) shares, Axon Enterprises (AAXN), and Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG)  as well as Del Frisco’s (DFRG).

After falling just over 28% in the December quarter as investors gave up on the FANG stocks, as of last night’s market close Netflix shares are up 20% so far for the new year. Spurring them along have been favorable comments and a few upgrades from the likes of Piper Jaffray, Barclays, Sun Trust, and several other investment banks. From my perspective, even though Netflix will face a more competitive landscape as AT&T (T), Disney (DIS), Hulu, Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), and Apple (AAPL), it has a substantial lead in the original content race over the likes of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon.

Candidly, only AT&T given its acquisition of Time Warner, and Disney, especially once it formally acquires with the movie, TV and other content from 21stCentury Fox (FOXA), will be streaming content contenders in the near term. And Disney is starting from scratch while AT&T lags meaningfully behind Netflix in terms of not only overall subscribers but domestic ones as well. For now, the digital streaming horse to play remains Netflix, especially as it brings more content to its service for both the US and international markets, which should drive its global subscriber base higher.

 

New bowls at Chipotle signal the Big Fix continues

Since its beginnings, Chipotle has been at the forefront of our Clean Living investing theme, but last week it took another step to attract those who are aiming to eat healthier when it introduced a line of Lifestyle Bowls. These included Keto, Paleo, Whole30, and Double Protein versions are only available through the company’s mobile app and the Chipotle website. Clearly, the new management team that arrived last year understands the powerful tailwind associated with our Digital Lifestyle investing theme. More on those new bowls can be found here, and we expect to hear more on the management team’s Big Fix initiatives when the company presents at the ICR Conference on Jan. 15.

 

Adding to Axon Enterprises as EPS expectations move higher

When we added shares of Axon Enterprises to the Thematic Leaders for the Safety & Security slot, we noted the company’s long reach into US police departments and other venues that should drive adoption of its newer Taser units but more importantly its body cameras and digital storage businesses. In the company’s November earnings report we saw that positive impact as its Axon Cloud revenue rose 47% year over year to $24 million, roughly $24 million or 23% of revenue vs. 18% in the year-ago quarter. Even better, the gross margin associated with that business has been running in the mid 70% range over the last few quarters, well above the corporate gross margin average of 36%-37%. Over the last 90 days, we’ve seen Wall Street boost its EPS forecasts for the company to $0.77 for 2018, up from $0.52, and to $0.92 for 2019 up from $0.73.

Even though we AAXN shares are on a roll thus far in 2019, the position is still in the red since joining the Thematic Leaders. Against the favorable tailwind of our Safety & Security investing theme and rising EPS expectations, we will scale into AAXN shares at current levels, which will drop our cost basis to around $61 from just under $73. Our $90 price target remains intact.

  • We are scaling into shares of Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AXON) at current levels, which will dramatically improve our cost basis. Our $90 price target remains intact.

 

Del Frisco’s shares jump on takeout speculation

Over the last few weeks, there has a sizable rebound in the shares of high-end restaurant name Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. Ahead of the year-end 2018 holidays, the company’s board of directors was the recipient of activist investor action from Engaged Capital. During the holiday weeks, the company shared it has hired investment firm Piper Jaffray to “review and consider a full range of options focused on maximizing shareholder value, including a possible sale of the Company or any of its dining concepts.”

In other words, Del Frisco’s is putting itself in play. Often this can result in a company being taken out either by strategic investors, private equity or a combination of the two. There is also the chance a company going through this process is not acquired due primarily to a mismatch between the potential buyer(s) and the board on price as well as underlying financing.

From my perspective, 2018 was a challenging year for Del Frisco’s as it repositioned its branded portfolio. This included the sale of Sullivan’s Steakhouse and the acquisition of Barteca Restaurant Group, the parent of both Bartaco and Barcelona restaurants.

Transitions such as these can be challenging, and in some cases, the benefits of the transformation may take longer to emerge than planned. That said, given the data we’ve discussed previously on the recession-resistant nature of high-end dining, such as at Del Frisco’s core Double Eagle Steakhouse and Grille, we do think the company would be a feather in the cap for another restaurant group. As we noted when we added DFRG shares to the Thematic Leaders, there are very few standalone public steakhouse companies left — the vast majority of them have been scooped up by names such as Landry’s or Darden Restaurants (DRI).

From a fundamental perspective, the reasons why we are bullish on Del Frisco’s are the same ones that make it a takeout candidate. While we wait and see what emerges on the bid front, I’ll be looking over other positions to fill DFRG’s slot on the Thematic Leaders should a viable bid emerge.  Given the company’s restaurant portfolio, the continued spending on high-end dining and its recession-resistant nature, odds are rather high of that happening.

  • Our price target on Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) remains $14.

 

 

Tematica Options+: A Thematic Look at 2019 and a New Option Trade

Tematica Options+: A Thematic Look at 2019 and a New Option Trade

 

We’re kicking off 2019 trying something different with Tematica Investing and Tematica Options+. Instead of sending two separate reports each week and asking you to flip it back and forth to weave it all together, we’re going to try and combine it all together for you in a single report. On top of that, we’re going to lay the groundwork upfront on what’s going on from a market and macroeconomic standpoint, something we call Context and Perspectives. You’ll see a truncated version of this report posted on the Tematica Investing section of our website without the Options+ content, but rest assured that it’s the same as what’s included in this report. If you’re simply looking for the option trade for the week, which we do have this week, you can scroll down to the bottom on a new call position with Del Frisco’s (DFRG).

We hope this simplifies things for you. If you want to take a moment and let me know what you think, just email me at cversace@tematicaresearch.com . I always love to hear from subscribers!

 

Key Points Inside this Issue:

 

 

CONTEXT AND PERSPECTIVES

Last Friday’s favorable December Employment Report showed the domestic economy is not falling off a cliff and comments by Fed Chair Jay Powell reflected that the central bank will be patient with monetary policy as it watches how the economy performs. Those two things kicked the market off on its most recent three-day winning streak as of last night’s close. In many ways, Powell gave the market what it was looking for when he shared the Fed will remain data dependent when it looks at the economy and its next step with monetary policy.

Taking a few steps back, we’ve all experienced the market volatility over the last several weeks as it contends with a host of issues that we here at Tematica have laid out through much of the December quarter. These include:

  • U.S.-China trade issues
  • The slowing economy
  • A Fed that could boost rates twice in 2019 and continues to unwind its balance sheet
  • Brexit and political uncertainty in the Eurozone
  • And more recently the government shutdown.

These factors have led investors to question growth prospects for the global as well as the domestic economy and earnings in 2019.

Powell’s comments potentially take one of those issues off the table at least in the short-term. If the economy continues to deliver job creation as we saw in December, with some of the best year-over-year wage gains we’ve seen in years, before too long the Fed-related conversation could very well turn from two rate hikes to three.

Currently, that isn’t what the market is expecting.

The reason it isn’t is that outside of the December jobs report, data from ISM and IHS Markit continued to show a decelerating global and U.S. economy. With new orders and backlog levels falling, as well as pricing-related data, it likely means we won’t see a pronounced pickup in the January data. The JPMorgan Global Composite Output Index for December delivered its lowest reading since September 2016 due principally to the slowdown in the eurozone. Rates of expansion slowed in Germany (66-month low) and Spain (three-month low), while Italy stagnated. China, the UK, and Brazil all saw modest growth accelerations.

 

Despite the month over month declines in the December data for the US, it was the best performer on a relative basis even though the IHS Markit Composite PMI reading for the month hit a 15-month low. A more sobering view was shared by Chris Williamson, Chief Business Economist at IHS Markit who said:

“Manufacturers reported a weakened pace of expansion at the end of 2018, and grew less upbeat about prospects for 2019. Output and order books grew at the slowest rates for over a year and optimism about the outlook slumped to its gloomiest for over two years.”

That should give the Fed some room to hold off boosting rates, but it also confirms the economy is decelerating, which will likely have revenue and earnings guidance repercussions in the upcoming December-quarter earnings season.

There are several catalysts that could drive both the economy and the stock market higher in the coming months. These include a “good deal” resolution to the U.S.-China trade situation and forward movement in Washington on infrastructure spending. This week, the US and China have met on trade and it appears those conversations have paved the way for further discussions in the coming weeks. A modest positive that has helped drive the stock market higher this week, but thus far concrete details remain scant.

Such details are not likely to emerge for at least several weeks, which means the next major catalyst for the stock market will be the upcoming December quarter earnings season that begins in nine trading days.

 

Earnings expectations are being revised lower

Facing a number of risks and uncertainties over the last several weeks, investors have once again questioned growth prospects for both the economy and earnings growth for 2019. The following two charts – one of the Citibank Economic Surprise Index and one showing the aggregate profit margin for the S&P 500 companies – depict what investors are grappling with weaker than expected economic data at a time when corporate operating margins have hit the highest levels in over 20 years.

While expectations for growth in both the domestic economy and earnings for the S&P 500 have come in compared to forecasts from just a few months ago, the current view per The Wall Street Journal’s Economic Forecasting Survey calls for 2019 GDP near 2.3% (down from 3.0% in 2018) with the S&P 500 group of companies growing their collective EPS by 7.4% year over year in 2019.

 

Here’s the thing, in recent weeks, analysts lowered their earnings estimates for companies in the S&P 500 for the December quarter by roughly 4% to $40.93. The Q4 bottom-up EPS estimate (which is an aggregation of the median EPS estimates of all the companies in the index) dropped by 4.5% to $40.63. In the chart below, you can see this means quarter over quarter, December quarter earnings are expected to drop breaking the typical pattern of earnings growth into the last quarter of the year. What you can’t see is that marks the largest cut to quarterly S&P 500 EPS estimates in over a year.

 

 

Getting back to that 7.4% rate of earnings growth that is currently forecasted for 2019, I’d call out that it too has been revised down from 9% earlier in the December quarter. That new earnings forecast is a far cry from 21.7% in 2018, which was in part fueled by a stronger economy as well as the benefits of tax reform that was passed in late 2017. As we all know, there that was a one-time bump to corporate bottom lines that will not be repeated this year or in subsequent ones. The conundrum that investors are facing is with the market barometer that is the S&P 500 currently trading at 15.9x consensus 2018 EPS of $161.54, the factors listed above have investors asking what the right market multiple based on 2019’s consensus EPS of $173.45 should be?

And while most investors don’t “buy the market,” its valuation and earnings growth are a yardstick by which investors judge individual stocks.

 

Thematic tailwinds will continue to drive profits and stock prices

One of the key principles to valuing stocks is that companies delivering stronger EPS growth warrant a premium valuation. Of course, in today’s stock buyback rampant world, that means ferreting out those companies that are growing their net income. My preference has been to zero in on what is going on with a company’s operating profit and operating margins given that their vector and velocity are the prime drivers of earnings. That was especially needed last year given the widespread bottom-line benefits of tax reform.

At the heart of it, the question is what is driving the business?

As I’ve shared before, sector classifications don’t speak to that as they are a grouping of companies by certain characteristics rather than the catalysts that are driving their businesses. As we’ve seen before, some companies, such as Amazon (AMZN) or Apple (AAPL) capitalize on those catalysts, while others fail to do so in a timely manner if at all. Sears (SHLD), JC Penney (JCP) are easy call outs, but so are Toys R Us, Bon-Ton Stores, Sports Authority, Blue Apron (APRN), and Snap (SNAP) to name just over a handful.

Very different, and we can see the difference in comparing revenue and profit growth as well as stock prices. The ones that are performing are responding to the changing landscapes across the economic, demographic, psychographic, technological, regulatory and other playing fields they face. In short, they are riding the thematic tailwinds that we here at Tematica have identified. As a reminder those themes are:

 

As we move into 2019, I continue to see the tailwinds associated with those themes continuing to blow hard. Despite all the vain attempts to fight it temporarily, there is no slowing down the aging process. Consumers continue to flock to better for you alternatives, and as you’ll see below that has led Thematic Leader Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) to bring a new offering to market.

As we saw this past holiday shopping season, consumers are flocking more and more to digital shopping while hours spent streaming content continue to thwart broadcast TV and the box office. This year 5G networks and devices will become a reality as AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and others launch those commercial networks. The legalization of cannabis continues, and consumers continue to consume chocolate, alcohol and other Guilty Pleasures.

Whether you are Marriott International (MAR), Facebook (FB), British Airways or the Bridgeport School System, cyber threats continue to grow and as we saw last night during the presidential address and Democratic response, border security be it through a wall, technology or other means is a pain point that needs to be addressed. While the last two monthly Employment Reports have shown some of the best wage gains in years, Middle-class Squeeze consumers continue to face a combination of higher debt and interest rates as well as rising healthcare costs and the need to save for their golden years that will weigh on the ability to spend.

Like any set of winds, there will be times when some blow harder than others. For example, as we peer into the coming year the launch of 5G networks and gigabit ethernet will likely see the Digital Infrastructure tailwind accelerate in the first half of the year as network and data center operators utilize the services of companies like Thematic Leader Dycom Industries (DY) to build the physical networks. Some tailwinds, such as those associated with Aging of the Population, Clean Living and Middle-class Squeeze are likely to be more persistent over the coming year. Other tailwinds will gust hard at times almost seemingly out of nowhere reminding that they have been there all along. Given the nature of high profile cyber attacks and other threats, that’s likely to once again be the case with Safety & Security.

The bottom line is this – the impact to be had of the tailwinds associated with our 10 investment themes will continue to be felt in 2019. They will continue to influence consumer and business behavior, altering the playing field and forcing companies to either respond or not. The ones that are capitalizing on that changing playing field and are delivering pronounced profit growth are the ones investors should be focusing on.

 

TEMATICA INVESTING 

Scaling into AAXN, and updates on NFLX, CMG, and DFRG

As I discussed above, the December quarter was one of the most challenging periods for the stock market in some time. Even though we are just over a handful of days into 2019, we’re seeing the thematic tailwinds blow again on the Thematic Leaders with 9 of the 11 positions ahead of the S&P 500. Yes, we’re looking pretty good so far but it’s too early in the year to start patting our backs, especially with the upcoming earnings season. Odds are Apple’s (AAPL) negative preannouncement last week won’t be the only sign of misery to be had, and that’s why I’m keeping the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) active for the time being. As I shared with you last week, while Apple and others are contending with a maturing smartphone market, I continue to like the long-term Digital Lifestyle aspects as it moves into streaming content and subscription-related businesses.

Of those 9 companies that are ahead of the S&P 500, as you can see in the table above, there are several that are significantly outperforming the market in the brief time that is 2019. These include Netflix (NFLX) shares, Axon Enterprises (AAXN), and Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG)  as well as Del Frisco’s (DFRG).

After falling just over 28% in the December quarter as investors gave up on the FANG stocks, as of last night’s market close Netflix shares are up 20% so far for the new year. Spurring them along have been favorable comments and a few upgrades from the likes of Piper Jaffray, Barclays, Sun Trust, and several other investment banks. From my perspective, even though Netflix will face a more competitive landscape as AT&T (T), Disney (DIS), Hulu, Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), and Apple (AAPL), it has a substantial lead in the original content race over the likes of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon.

Candidly, only AT&T given its acquisition of Time Warner, and Disney, especially once it formally acquires with the movie, TV and other content from 21stCentury Fox (FOXA), will be streaming content contenders in the near term. And Disney is starting from scratch while AT&T lags meaningfully behind Netflix in terms of not only overall subscribers but domestic ones as well. For now, the digital streaming horse to play remains Netflix, especially as it brings more content to its service for both the US and international markets, which should drive its global subscriber base higher.

 

New bowls at Chipotle signal the Big Fix continues

Since its beginnings, Chipotle has been at the forefront of our Clean Living investing theme, but last week it took another step to attract those who are aiming to eat healthier when it introduced a line of Lifestyle Bowls. These included Keto, Paleo, Whole30, and Double Protein versions are only available through the company’s mobile app and the Chipotle website. Clearly, the new management team that arrived last year understands the powerful tailwind associated with our Digital Lifestyle investing theme. More on those new bowls can be found here, and we expect to hear more on the management team’s Big Fix initiatives when the company presents at the ICR Conference on Jan. 15.

 

Adding to Axon Enterprises as EPS expectations move higher

When we added shares of Axon Enterprises to the Thematic Leaders for the Safety & Security slot, we noted the company’s long reach into US police departments and other venues that should drive adoption of its newer Taser units but more importantly its body cameras and digital storage businesses. In the company’s November earnings report we saw that positive impact as its Axon Cloud revenue rose 47% year over year to $24 million, roughly $24 million or 23% of revenue vs. 18% in the year-ago quarter. Even better, the gross margin associated with that business has been running in the mid 70% range over the last few quarters, well above the corporate gross margin average of 36%-37%. Over the last 90 days, we’ve seen Wall Street boost its EPS forecasts for the company to $0.77 for 2018, up from $0.52, and to $0.92 for 2019 up from $0.73.

Even though we AAXN shares are on a roll thus far in 2019, the position is still in the red since joining the Thematic Leaders. Against the favorable tailwind of our Safety & Security investing theme and rising EPS expectations, we will scale into AAXN shares at current levels, which will drop our cost basis to around $61 from just under $73. Our $90 price target remains intact.

  • We are scaling into shares of Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AXON) at current levels, which will dramatically improve our cost basis. Our $90 price target remains intact.

 

Del Frisco’s shares jump on takeout speculation

Over the last few weeks, there has a sizable rebound in the shares of high-end restaurant name Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. Ahead of the year-end 2018 holidays, the company’s board of directors was the recipient of activist investor action from Engaged Capital. During the holiday weeks, the company shared it has hired investment firm Piper Jaffray to “review and consider a full range of options focused on maximizing shareholder value, including a possible sale of the Company or any of its dining concepts.”

In other words, Del Frisco’s is putting itself in play. Often this can result in a company being taken out either by strategic investors, private equity or a combination of the two. There is also the chance a company going through this process is not acquired due primarily to a mismatch between the potential buyer(s) and the board on price as well as underlying financing.

From my perspective, 2018 was a challenging year for Del Frisco’s as it repositioned its branded portfolio. This included the sale of Sullivan’s Steakhouse and the acquisition of Barteca Restaurant Group, the parent of both Bartaco and Barcelona restaurants.

Transitions such as these can be challenging, and in some cases, the benefits of the transformation may take longer to emerge than planned. That said, given the data we’ve discussed previously on the recession-resistant nature of high-end dining, such as at Del Frisco’s core Double Eagle Steakhouse and Grille, we do think the company would be a feather in the cap for another restaurant group. As we noted when we added DFRG shares to the Thematic Leaders, there are very few standalone public steakhouse companies left — the vast majority of them have been scooped up by names such as Landry’s or Darden Restaurants (DRI).

From a fundamental perspective, the reasons why we are bullish on Del Frisco’s are the same ones that make it a takeout candidate. While we wait and see what emerges on the bid front, I’ll be looking over other positions to fill DFRG’s slot on the Thematic Leaders should a viable bid emerge.  Given the company’s restaurant portfolio, the continued spending on high-end dining and its recession-resistant nature, odds are rather high of that happening.

  • Our price target on Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) remains $14.

 

TEMATICA OPTIONS+

Adding a call position on Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group

That combination of solid fundamentals and a prospective takeout bid are prompting me to add a call option position on the shares of Del Frisco’s. Given the nature of the “up for acquisition” process, bidders have to emerge, the company’s advisors and Board have to review the bids, and there could be a second round of bidding. All of this takes time. For that reason, we’re going to go out several months longer than usual with the strike date to June. Given our preference for out of the money calls, that brings us to the June 10.00. calls.

One potential risk with any prospective acquisition play is that a viable bid fails to emerge. It could be a lack of bidders, which in this case is rather unlikely, or it could be because the negotiating parties aren’t able to agree on a transaction price. That has happened in the past, and while it’s likely a low probability in this instance, it is a risk to consider. For that reason, we want to set a rather tight stop loss.

Putting all of these factors together, we are adding the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) June 2019 10.00 (DFRG190621C00010000) calls that closed last night at 0.47 to the Select List with a stop loss of 0.35

As we gear up for the upcoming earnings season that will kick off in earnest the week of Jan. 21, which currently has more than 250 companies reporting quarterly results and offering a fresh look at 2019, we will continue to keep the ProShares Short S&P 500 Jan 2019 30.00 calls (SH190118C00030000) position intact for now.

 

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Scaling deeper into Dycom shares

WEEKLY ISSUE: Scaling deeper into Dycom shares

Key points from this issue:

  • We are halfway through the current quarter, and we’ve got a number of holdings on the Tematica Investing Select List that are trouncing the major market indices.
  • We are using this week’s pain to improve our long-term cost basis in Dycom Industries (DY) shares as we ratchet back our price target to $100 from $125.
  • Examining our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme and housing.
  • A Digital Lifestyle company that we plan on avoiding as Facebook attacks its key market.

 

As the velocity of June quarter earnings reports slows, in this issue of Tematica Investing we’re going to examine how our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme is impacting the housing market and showcase a Digital Lifestyle theme company that I think subscribers would be smart to avoid. I’m also keeping my eyes open regarding the recent concerns surrounding Turkey and the lira. Thus far, signs of contagion appear to be limited but in the coming days, I suspect we’ll have a much better sense of the situation and exposure to be had.

With today’s issue, we are halfway through the current quarter. While the major market indices are up 2%-4% so far in the quarter, by comparison, we’ve had a number of strong thematic outperformers. These include Alphabet (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), AXT Inc. (AXTI), Costco Wholesale (COST),  Habit Restaurant (HABT), Walt Disney (DIS), United Parcel Service (UPS), Universal Display (OLED) and USA Technologies (USAT).  That’s an impressive roster to be sure, but there are several positions that have lagged the market quarter to date including GSV Capital (GSVC), Nokia (NOK), Netflix (NFLX), Paccar (PCAR) and Rockwell Automation (ROK). We’ve also experienced some pain with Dycom (DY) shares, which we will get to in a moment.

Last week jettisoned shares of Farmland Partners (FPI) following the company taking it’s 3Q 2018 dividend payment and shooting it behind the woodshed. We also scaled into GSVC shares following GSV’s thesis-confirming June quarter earnings report, and I’m closely watching NFLX shares with a similar strategy in mind given the double-digit drop since adding them to the Tematica Investing Select List just over a month ago.

 

Scaling into Dycom share to improve our position for the longer-term

Last week we unveiled our latest investing theme here at Tematica – Digital Infrastructure. Earlier this week, Dycom Industries (DY), our first Digital Infrastructure selection slashed its outlook for the next few quarters despite a sharp rise in its backlog. Those shared revisions are as follows:

  • For its soon to be reported quarter, the company now sees EPS of $1.05-$1.08 from its previous guidance of $1.13-$1.28 vs. $1.19 analyst consensus estimate and revenues of $799.5 million from the prior $830-$860 million vs. the $843 million consensus.
  • For its full year ending this upcoming January, Dycom now sees EPS of $2.62-$3.07 from $4.26-$5.15 vs. the $4.63 consensus estimate and revenues of $3.01-$3.11 billion from $3.23-$3.43 billion and the $3.33 billion consensus.

 

What caught my eyes was the big disparity between the modest top line cuts and the rather sharp ones to the bottom line. Dycom attributed the revenue shortfall to slower large-scale deployments at key customers and margin pressure due to the under absorption of labor and field costs – the same issues that plagued it in its April quarter. Given some of the June quarter comments from mobile infrastructure companies like Ericsson (ERIC) and Nokia (NOK), Dycom’s comments regarding customer timing is not that surprising, even though the magnitude to its bottom line is. I chalk this up to the operating leverage that is inherent in its construction services business, and that cuts both ways – great when things are ramping, and to the downside when activity is less than expected.

We also know from Ericsson and Dycom that the North American market will be the most active when it comes to 5G deployments in the coming quarters, which helps explain why Dycom’s backlog rose to $7.9 billion exiting July up from $5.9 billion at the end of April and $5.9 billion exiting the July 2017 quarter. As that backlog across Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Windstream and others is deployed in calendar 2019, we should see a snapback in margins and EPS compared to 2018.

With that in mind, the strategy will be to turn lemons – Monday’s 24% drop in DY’s share price – into long-term lemonade. To do this, we are adding to our DY position at current levels, which should drop our blended cost basis to roughly $80 from just under $92. Not bad, but I’ll be inclined to scale further into the position to enhance that blended cost basis in the coming weeks and months on confirmation that 5G is moving from concept to physical network. Like I said in our Digital Infrastructure overview, no 5G network means no 5G services, plain and simple. As we scale into the shares and factor in the revised near-term outlook, I’m also cutting our price target on DY shares to $100 from $125.

  • We are using this week’s pain to improve our long-term cost basis in Dycom Industries (DY) shares as we ratchet back our price target to $100 from $125.

 

Now, let’s get to how our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme is hitting the housing market, and review that Digital Lifestyle company that we’re going to steer clear of because of Facebook (FB). Here we go…

 

If not single-family homes, where are the squeezed middle-class going?

To own a home was once considered one of the cornerstones of the American dream. If we look at the year to date move in the SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (XHB), which is down nearly 16% this year, one might have some concerns about the tone of the housing market. Yes, there is the specter of increasing inflation that has and likely will prompt the Federal Reserve to boost interest rates, and that will inch mortgage rates further from the near record lows enjoyed just a few years ago.

Here’s the thing:

  • Higher mortgage rates will make the cost of buying a home more expensive at a time when real wage growth is not accelerating, and consumers will be facing higher priced goods as inflation winds its way through the economic system leading to higher prices. During the current earnings season, we’ve heard from a number of companies including Cinemark Holdings (CNK), Hostess Brands (TWNK), Otter Tail (OTTR), and Diodes Inc. (DIOD) that are expected to pass on rising costs to consumers in the form of price increases.
  • Consumers debt loads have already climbed higher in recent years and as interest rates rise that will get costlier to service sapping disposable income and the ability to build a mortgage down payment

 

 

And let’s keep in mind, homes prices are already the most expensive they have been in over a decade due to a combination of tight housing supply and rising raw material costs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, higher wood costs have added almost $9,000 to the price of the average new single-family since January 2017.

 

 

Already new home sales have been significantly lower than over a decade ago, and as these forces come together it likely means the recent slowdown in new home sales that has emerged in 2018 is likely to get worse.

 

Yet our population continues to grow, and new households are being formed.

 

This prompts the question as to where are these new households living and where are they likely to in the coming quarters as homeownership costs are likely to rise further?

The answer is rental properties, including apartments, which are enjoying low vacancy rates and a positive slope in the consumer price index paid of rent paid for a primary residence.

 

There are several real estate investment trusts (REITs) that focus on the apartment and rental market including Preferred Apartment Communities, Inc. (APTS) and Independence Realty Trust (IRT). I’ll be looking at these and others to determine potential upside to be had in the coming quarters, which includes looking at their attractive dividend yields to ensure the underlying dividend stream is sustainable. More on this to come.

 

A Digital Lifestyle company that we plan on avoiding as Facebook attacks its key market

As important as it is to find well-positioned companies that are poised to ride prevailing thematic tailwinds that will drive revenue and profits as well as the share price higher, it’s also important to sidestep those that are running headlong into pronounced headwinds. These headwinds can take several forms, but one of the more common ones of late is the expanding footprint of companies like Alphabet (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN) and Facebook (FB) among others.

We’ve seen the impact on shares of Blue Apron (APRN) fall apart over the last year following the entrance of Kroger (KR) into the meal kit business with its acquisition of Home Chef and investor concerns over Amazon entering the space following its acquisition of Whole Foods Market. That changing landscape highlighted one of the major flaws in Blue Apron’s subscription-based business model –  very high customer acquisition costs and high customer churn rates. While we warned investors to avoid APRN shares back last October when they were trading at north of $5, those who didn’t heed our advice are now enjoying APRN shares below $2.20. Ouch!

Now let’s take a look at the shares of Meet Group (MEET), which have been on a tear lately rising to $4.20 from just under $3 coming into 2018. The question to answer is this more like a Blue Apron or more like USA Technologies (USAT) or Habit Restaurant (HABT). In other words, one that is headed for destination @#$%^& or a bona fide opportunity.

According to its description, Meet offers  applications designed to meet the “universal need for human connection” and keep its users “entertained and engaged, and originate untold numbers of casual chats, friendships, dates, and marriages.” That sound you heard was the collective eye-rolling across Team Tematica. If you’re thinking this sounds similar to online and mobile dating sites like Tinder, Match, PlentyOfFish, Meetic, OkCupid, OurTime, and Pairs that are all part of Match Group (MTCH) and eHarmony, we here at Tematica are inclined to agree. And yes, dating has clearly moved into the digital age and that falls under the purview of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Right off the bat, the fact that Meet’s expected EPS in 2018 and 2019 are slated to come in below the $0.39 per share Meet earned in 2017 despite consensus revenue expectations of $181 in 2019 vs. just under $124 million in 2017 is a red flag. So too is the lack of positive cash flow and fall off in cash on the balance sheet from $74.5 million exiting March 2017 to less than $21 million at the close of the June 2018 quarter. A sizable chunk of that cash was used to buy Lovoo, a popular dating app in Europe as well as develop the ability to monetize live video on several of its apps.

Then there is the decline in the company’s average total daily active users to 4.75 million in the June 2018 quarter from 4.95 million exiting 2017. Looking at average mobile daily active users as well as average monthly active user metrics we see the same downward trend over the last two quarters. Not good, not good at all.

And then there is Facebook, which at its 2018 F8 developer conference in early May, shared it was internally testing its dating product with employees. While it’s true the social media giant is contending with privacy concerns, CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared the company will continue to build new features and applications and this one was focused on building real, long-term relationships — not just for hookups…” Clearly a swipe at Match Group’s Tinder.

Given the size of Facebook’s global reach – 1.47 billion daily active users and 2.23 billion monthly active users – it has the scope and scale to be a force in digital dating even with modest user adoption. While Meet is enjoying the monetization benefits of its live video offering, Facebook has had voice and video calling as well as other chat capabilities that could spur adoption and converts from Meet’s platforms.

As I see it, Meet Group have enjoyed a nice run thus far in 2018, but as Facebook gears into the digital dating and moves from internal beta to open to the public, Meet will likely see further declines in user metrics. So, go user metrics to go advertising revenue and that means the best days for MEET shares could be in the rearview mirror. To me this makes MEET shares look more like those from Blue Apron than Habit or USA Technologies. In other words, I plan on steering clear of MEET shares and so should you.

 

 

Blue Apron and GNC, two examples of the struggle to fight against thematic headwinds

Blue Apron and GNC, two examples of the struggle to fight against thematic headwinds

 

In Tematica Investing, we focus on companies that are benefitting from tailwinds associated with our investment themes. As a good institutional portfolio manager knows, avoiding problematic investments is critical as they can sabotage returns to be had from well-positioned ones. In our Tematica lingo, that means avoiding companies that have thematic headwinds bearing down on their businesses and buying companies that are rising the tailwinds.

 

No need to revisit Blue Apron shares

We’ve been bearish on shares of Blue Apron (APRN) and we’ll try not to pat ourselves too hard on the back as we take a victory lap on that call.

As we saw yesterday, there is a good reason to remain that way as Walmart (WMT) is formally getting into the meal kitting business. While many were expecting Amazon (AMZN) to leverage its Whole Foods Market business with its own meal kitting offering (we still are), Walmart is leveraging its position as the largest grocer to enter the fray. The goal for the brick & mortar retail giant is to help build its digital footprint as well as take share from the restaurant industry, which has been pressured by weak traffic and average ticket pressure. Odds are Walmart is also looking to ride the consumer shift toward healthier eating and snacking that is part of our Food with Integrity theme along with a hefty dose of our Connected Society one.

All in all, this looks like a good extension for Walmart and one that is poised to make an already challenging environment even more so for Blue Apron.

 

 

Struggling GNC Holdings looks East

Another company that has been running into a significant thematic headwind is GNC Holdings (GNC). Once a dominant player in the sports performance and nutrition space (otherwise known as body-building), the supplement retailer has been attempting to reposition itself to a wider audience as a seller of “health, wellness and performance products.” As the performance market has moved online and to other sources, GNC has been attempting to capture more women and appeal to the Boomers and their set of nutritional needs, which are far different than the iron clangers in the free weight section of the gym.

To say this stock price chart looks like a one-way roller coaster that only goes down would be an understatement. A better comparison would be an alpine slide that starts extremely high up a mountain, has several twists and turns, but only goes in one direction – down. Since peaking in late 2013 near $60, that’s exactly what we’ve seen with GNC shares as its profits turned to losses despite a comparatively modest dip in revenue over the last few years.

 

 

In perusing the company’s latest 10K filing, the company offers up an explanation of sorts: “Prior to 2017, we had been experiencing declining traffic trends leading to decreasing same-store sales in our retail stores. After extensive consumer research and market analysis, we determined that our business model needed to be reimagined.”

Not exactly what a shareholder, existing or prospective one, wants to hear, but at least we can credit the management for not acting like an ostrich with their head in the ground as Amazon rolled into space as did others. The combination of having to “reimagine” its business model as well as fend of competitors led annual Selling, General & Administrative expenses to rise over 2015-2017 as revenue shrank, pushing GNC to deliver bottom-line losses.

Digging into the financials, the company experienced negative same-store sales in every quarter during 2016 and the first two of 2017. Making matters worse, average transaction amount was in negative territory over the last five quarters, and sales at GNC.com sales were falling as well. December 2017 quarterly sales were up 0.2% in company-owned stores vs. down 1.2% in the September 2017 quarter.

Not exactly a recipe for success, but clear signs the company could be in turnaround mode. What makes this potential turnaround interesting is the new partnership with CITIC Capital and Harbin Pharmaceutical Group. As a way of background, CITIC Capital is a global investment firm with a strong position in China and the Harbin Pharmaceutical Group is a joint venture of several China-based pharmaceutical companies. CITIC will invest $300 million in the form of a newly issued convertible perpetual preferred security with a 6.5% coupon payable in cash or in kind and a $5.35 conversion price. GNC will use the funds to repay existing debt and for other general corporate purposes, and on an as-converted basis, CITIC will hold roughly 40% of GNC’s outstanding equity. That’s a significant shareholder and one that will also appoint a total of five members to GNC’s newly expanded 11 member board.

The company expects the transaction to close in the second half of 2018, but it will require regulatory approval in both the U.S. and China. Given the current geopolitical tensions we are reading about almost daily, there could be some speed bumps associated with these approvals. Also too, GNC is ramping marketing associated with its recently launched pricing strategy and loyalty program, One New GNC strategy in the current quarter. This likely means margin pressure is poised to continue.

The bottom line is even though GNC is facing steep competitive domestic pressures, it’s new relationships could pivot its business but there are several hurdles to be overcome. Keyword being “could.” The risk related question I find myself asking is “Yes, I understand what the management team is saying, but what if the pivot or turnaround doesn’t happen as expected?”

We’ve seen many a company that in the face of thematic headwinds and mounting competitive pressures have attempted to reposition their businesses. Few have succeeded. My gut tells me that GNC, much like Blue Apron, Blackberry (BBRY), Angie’s List, GoPro (GPRO), Fitbit (FIT) and others, is on the road to nowhere for investors. But that’s my gut, which means reminding myself to keep an open mind and watch the data as it becomes available.

 

 

 

Amazon Continues to Grab More and More Consumer Wallet Share

Amazon Continues to Grab More and More Consumer Wallet Share

Last week we received the disappointing June Retail Sales report, which pointed to another step down in GDP expectations for the second quarter as well as the ongoing pain for brick & mortar retailers, especially department stores like Macy’s (M), JC Penney (JCP) and the like.

Digging into the June retail sales report, we noticed month-over-month declines almost across the board, but one of the larger declines was in… you guessed it.. department stores, which fell 3.9 percent year over year. By comparison, Nonstore retailers (code for e-tailers), like Amazon (AMZN), rose 9.7 percent year over year.

We’d also note the June retail sales report caps the second-quarter data and, in tallying the three months, nonstore retailer sales rose more than 10 percent year over year. On the other hand department stores fell more than 3 percent, while the sporting goods, hobby, book and music store category dropped nearly 6 percent year over year. Keep in mind that Nike (NKE) only recently partnered with Amazon to leverage its second to none logistics as Nike looks to reduce its reliance on third party retailers such as Foot Locker (FL) and grow its higher margin Direct to Consumer business. Yet another reason to expect declining mall traffic in the coming months especially if more branded apparel companies look to partner with Amazon… and yes, we expect that to happen.

 

 

This week, Amazon sent more than a flare across the bow of newly public meal kit company Blue Apron (APRN) and took one step deeper into expanding its food focused efforts. As they’ve become public, recent trademark filings reveal Amazon is looking to attack the growing meal kit business and has trademarked “We do the prep. You be the chef,” “We prep. You cook” and “No-line meal kits.”

Looking into the filings, the described service offering tied to these trademarks is “Prepared food kits composed of meat, poultry, fish, seafood, fruit and/or and vegetables and also including sauces or seasonings, ready for cooking and assembly as a meal; Frozen, prepared, and packaged meals consisting of meat, poultry, fish, seafood, fruit and/or vegetables; fruit salads and vegetable salads; soups and preparations for making soups.”

As we said above, it sure looks like Amazon is looking to leverage its growing presence in food, and our Food with Integrity investing theme, to capitalize on the growing meal kit business that led Blue Apron to go public. Looking back over the last few years, we see this as a natural extension of its food efforts that began in 2013 with the launch of Amazon Fresh for groceries followed by Amazon Restaurants for restaurant delivery in 2014. Of course, the pending acquisition of Whole Foods (WFM) is the key ingredient (see what we did there) to rounding out its position in the meal kit business and tap the $800 billion grocery opportunity.

This announcement, paired with others that include Amazon’s move into the apparel industry, bolsters its already strong position for the quarters to come. Now for a word of caution – of late it seems that Amazon can do no wrong and in our view, this sets up pretty high expectations for the company’s 2Q 2017 earnings and the outlook for the second half of 2017, which includes Back to School, and holiday shopping.

One of the few places the herd gets tripped up with Amazon is on the cost side of the equation, particularly when it comes to investing for future growth. Given the number of initiatives Amazon has in place, we think there is a meaningful probability that Amazon boosts its investment spending near-term for these newer initiatives as it has done in the past when it reports its quarterly results on July 27. If we’re right, it could lead to a pullback in the shares especially since Amazon tends to be rather tight lipped when it comes to details on its earnings conference calls. We would look to scale into AMZN shares between $820-$870, roughly a 15-20 percent drop from current levels, which tends to be the range that high profile stocks like Amazon get hit if they come up short on earnings or guidance.

  • We continue to see Amazon as a long-term wallet share gainer as it continues to expand its umbrella of service offerings and geographic footprint, while benefitting from the adoption of its high margin cloud business.
  • Our price target remains $1,150.