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.



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.



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.




Weekly Issue: Insights on Apple, Cutting Trade Desk and a look at eGaming and Body Cameras

Weekly Issue: Insights on Apple, Cutting Trade Desk and a look at eGaming and Body Cameras



  • Raging fires in So-Cal has us cutting Trade Desk shares loose
  • Here’s why we’re avoiding body camera stocks
  • Speaking of Apple…
  • Some mobile gaming stocks go under the microscope


It’s been a wild ride in the market this past week, as investors shift their view from “will tax reform pass” to “with tax reform likely, which sectors will benefit?” Candidly we find this to be the wrong question to ask, not just because we believe sector investing is dead (it is!) but because we see a better question being which thematically well-positioned companies are poised to benefit from lower tax rates in 2018?

We’re rolling up our sleeves, proceeding with that analysis and we’ll have some answers in the coming days. In the meantime, we’ve got another full weekly issue of Tematica Investing to share with you. Here goes…


Raging fires in So-Cal has us cutting Trade Desk shares loose

Shares of digital advertising platform company Trade Desk have been under renewed pressure this week, in part due to weakness in the Nasdaq Composite Index, but also to the fires raging in southern California. As a reminder, Trade Desk is headquartered in Ventura, California and despite the prospects for half of all global advertising to be spent online by 2020, odds are Trade Desk will experience either some disruption or distraction in the current quarter that could lead to the company missing quarterly expectations. We’ve seen how share prices react to such misses, and we’d rather get out ahead of any potenital miss to expectations and minimize the impact to Select List.

As such, we are cutting Trade Desk shares loose at market today, which will generate a blended loss of more than 17% across the two tranches on the Tematica Investing Select List. We’ll look to revisit the shares once the full extent of the damage has been priced into the shares.

  • We are issuing a Sell on Trade Desk (TTD) shares.



Here’s why we’re avoiding body camera stocks

One of the key investment themes that we talk quite a bit about here at Tematica is the Connected Society investment theme and the impact it is having on industries and companies. It’s not to take anything away from our other themes, it’s just the Connected Society has been a disruptive force across a growing number of industries. We’re seeing its impact stretch across how we shop, bank, communicate and consume content ranging from video and audio to news and even stock information.

We’re also seeing the impact outside of consumer-facing opportunities in part with the Internet of Things, but also with our Safety & Security investing theme. As a quick reminder, this theme spans defense, homeland security, personal security, and cybersecurity, but also law enforcement. When it comes to law enforcement we have seen a number of new items ranging from rubber bullets to bean bag guns come to market, but with the Connected Society, we are seeing a shift from reactive to proactive monitoring via body cameras. It’s a razor to razor blade business model, with the body cameras serving as the razor and the data management the ongoing spend, a model that is similar to buying new blades every month.

Interestingly enough, I received a subscriber email that was asking about a company that falls into this category – Digital Ally (DGLY). Trading at just under $3 per share the past month, DGLY shares are well off their 52-week high of $6 per share, and yet have a consensus price target of $5. That along with the underlying fundamentals of the body camera market were more than enough to get me to look at the shares.

Not to be all Debbie Downer, but in reviewing the company’s financials, I have a few cautionairy observations to share:

  • The company’s business model has been and looks to be currently upside down. In that I mean it’s operating expenses vastly outweigh its revenue stream. Over the last 12 months, Digital Ally’s revenues totaled a whopping $15.2 million, while its operating expenses over the same period hit $26.6 million
  • It should come as little surprise the company is bleeding on its bottom line and hemorrhaging cash, which it doesn’t have much of. Exiting the September quarter Digital Ally had $0.3 million in cash and short-term equivalents. In the same quarter, its net loss was $3.5 million.


As the saying goes, the numbers don’t lie and simply put, DGLY shares are not a pretty picture. This lack of balance sheet strength in the face of ongoing losses was one of the flag’s I identified with Blue Apron (APRN) shares and I see it here with Digital Ally as well. And for those keeping score, Blue Apron shares are down 27% since my initial bearish comments on October 24th.

Aside from the financial statements, there are other concerns that also have me steering away from DGLY shares — namely back and forth patent infringement cases with competitors WatchGuard and Axon Enterprise (AXON), the company formerly known as Taser. These cases are always messy, with companies throwing resources at legal fees and that’s going to hurt a company with Digital Ally’s balance sheet. Based on what is seen here, it’s quite possible that Digital Ally could be one of those companies that vanishes unless it were to undergo what would likely be a painful and dilutive secondary offering that injects capital onto the balance sheet.

Is it possible that Digital Ally could be a takeout candidate? Perhaps, but as one Chief Financial Officer once shared with me when I asked him why not buy out a struggling company to improve his company’s competitive position – “why buy it now when in a few months I can probably buy it for cents on the dollar?” It was a great point, and besides what acquirer would want to step into the current lawsuit mess?

Better to move along and examine other potential candidates than take a flyer on a stock that is cheap for a reason. And for those wondering, that same set of lawsuits, as well as another factor, has me on the sidelines with Axon Enterprise shares as well. That other factor I mentioned is the current pilot program being run by the Jersey City Police Department that is testing a new smartphone app called CopCast that would allow police officers to turn an everyday smartphone into a body camera. While this is the first test in country, the JCPD has already expanded its pilot program to 250 officers from an initial ten. We’ll continue to monitor both this program, as well as those body camera company lawsuits. On the one hand, the outcome of that monitoring program could be a positive for the Apple (AAPL) shares on the Tematica Investing Select List, on the other it could mean revising DGLY and AXON shares. Time will tell.



Speaking of Apple…

Over the last week as part of the move lower in the Nasdaq, shares of smartphone company Apple (AAPL) moved lower by 2% — a hair better than the 2.2% decline in the Nasdaq. We here at Tematica remain upbeat on this recent addition to the Tematica Investing Select List with our confidence in Apple buoyed by two recent findings. First, a new report from Barclays’ surveyed 1,000 people and found that 62% will upgrade their smartphone in the next year, while 72% plan on doing so in the next 18 months. Of those upgrading, 54% are planning on choosing an iPhone with 35% choosing the iPhone X. It’s worth noting this iPhone X percentage is significantly higher than the August Barclays’ survey that found just 18% of would be Apple buyers would be willing to spend $1,000+ on the iPhone X.

The second report comes from IHS Markit, which forecasts that Apple will sell 88.8 million iPhones in the current quarter – its biggest quarter ever. As robust as that might be, the item that caught our analytical eye was the notion that Apple needs to ship just 31 million iPhone X units for its overall iPhone average selling price to crack $700 – another new record for the company. IHS’s forecast hinges on the collapsed shipping times for the iPhone X, which have fallen from 5-6 week initially, to roughly one week as Apple ramped production.

We expect additional forecasts to follow, but with the iPhone X making a number of “best of” lists, it appears this latest iPhone could once again be the holiday gift to get.

  • Our price target on Apple (AAPL) shares remains $200.



Some mobile gaming stocks go under the microscope

One of the key themes that caught investor attention over the last few quarters is the accelerating shift to digital consumption, especially mobile consumption that is part of our Connected Society investing theme. We saw this over the recent Thanksgiving-to-Cyber-Monday holiday shopping period, as digital sales over the five-day period hit a new record of $19.6 billion. Based on reports from Adobe (ADBE), Shopify (SHOP) and others, it appears that mobile sales rose to equal 40%-45% of all digital shopping sales this year.

We would also point out this shift to digital shopping is not occurring just inside the U.S. This year, Alibaba’s Singles Day hit $25.3 billion in sales, with over 90% of Alibaba’s sales made on mobile devices compared to 82% in 2016 and 69% in 2015.

I believe we can all agree that there is a pronounced shift underway favoring mobile consumption.

A few weeks’ back, we shared some thoughts on e-sports, which tie into how gaming is becoming a new kind of content that people consume not only by themselves or in small groups, but also in communal experiences. And in size… such size that corporate advertisers are sitting up and taking notice when such events are selling out Madison Square Garden for instance. It’s safe to say that eSports and video games fall well within the scope of our Content is King investing theme, on top of the Connected Society theme given the demands the games place on connectivity over the internet as well as viewing and playing over mobile devices.

Put these two tailwinds together, and it means looking at mobile gaming, and as luck would have it another subscriber asked about shares of Glu Mobile (GLUU) and Zynga (ZNGA). In the case of Glu — aside from the fact that they count companies like Activision and Hasbro (HAS) as strategic partners, and which game titles they have (if the dog doesn’t like the dog food, what’s the point in owning the company) — the key investor concern entails wrapping our head around 2018 expectations compared to 2017. We are essentially at that time of year when we make the transition to relying more on 2018 metrics and valuations, and it makes sense as we are inclined to own new positions into at least the first half of 2018.

In the case of Glu, the answer to the question set we’ll be asking is how does the company intend to meet (or beat) consensus expectations that have it delivering EPS of $0.09 in 2018, up from a -$0.08 loss this year? It’s a hefty swing, especially when 2018 revenue is expected to grow a tad more than 5% year over year.

The question for Zynga (ZNGA) is a bit different. It is expected to deliver EPS of $0.13 next year, up from $0.10 this year, which is 30% EPS growth, but why the sharp drop compared to year over year EPS growth this year, especially when 2018 revenue is slated to rise by more than 9%?

If you ask a carpenter how they look to minimize mistakes, the answer you usually get is “measure twice and cut once.” Essentially, that’s what we’ll be doing as we get to the bottom of those questions as well as others over the coming days.

As we do that, I’m going to offer a disclaimer of sorts. While we’ve smartly added companies like USA Technologies (USAT) and AXT Inc. (AXTI) to the Tematica Choice List, we generally stick with larger capitalization stocks, which tend to be more liquid and have better established business models, a track record of earnings and cash flow, better capitalized balance sheets and in some cases dividends.

All things being equal, those kinds of companies are less risky and less volatile than micro-cap stocks like Digital Ally or small-cap ones such as Glu Mobile, which often lack institutional investors and whose shareholders tend to be littered with speculators, not investors. In some cases, those stocks are nothing but glorified option plays, and we leave that kind of trading to our Tematica Options+ service, which focuses on trading options and other aggressive trading tactics, while here at Tematica Investing we are long-term and patient investors.

That’s not to say we won’t take advantage of a mismatch between a company’s stock price and the opportunity to be had, rather we’re going to examine each thematic contender on its own individual merits from a thematic and financial perspective. That being said, as we examine GLUU and ZNGA shares, I’ll be doing the same with Activision Blizzard (ATVI), Electronic Arts (EA) and Take-Two Interactive (TTWO) as well.

Before we close out this week’s issue, I’d like to hammer home that the answers to the questions we asked above and ones like them are what we consider to be the basic building block of analyzing and understanding a company and now its business is performing. For those subscribers that are looking for a more detailed set of primer questions, we – that’s Tematica Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins and myself – included them in Chapter 10 of our book, Cocktail Investing – Distilling Everyday Noise into Clear Investing Signals. And yes, that book inspired our weekly podcast and it would make a great holiday present to a burgeoning investor.




No need to be tempted by Blue Apron’s falling stock price

No need to be tempted by Blue Apron’s falling stock price

Recently we shared with Tematica Research Members our perspective on shares of Blue Apron (APRN). In a nutshell, our message was “stay away” from this company as it faced several headwinds. In the last few weeks, APRN shares hit $5.50, well off their initial public offering price of $10, but the shares have since cratered another 13%. For an aggressive trader, that would have been a nice short trade as the S&P 500 rose roughly 0.5% over the same time frame. Candidly, APRN shares were considered as a short trade for our Tematica Options+ service; however shorting stocks in the single digits is fraught with all sorts of issues no matter how tempting it may be.

Tomorrow, November 2, 2017, Blue Apron will report its 3Q 2017 quarterly results before the market open. Given the additional drop in the shares, odds are investors will yet again be contemplating what to do — get involved, leave it alone or perhaps getting even more aggressive to the downside — those are the choices we face.

Before we come to a quick conclusion, let’s remember Blue Apron management just initiated a round of layoffs – not good for a company that has recently become public! The drop in headcount equates to a 6% reduction and comes on the heels of a botched first quarter as a public company. As we learned in that earnings report, not only did Blue Apron deliver a wide miss to the downside vs. expected earnings, but the company also slashed its marketing spend to $30.4 million from $60.6 million in the prior quarter to conserve cash. Because of the June quarter loss per share of $31.6 million or -$0.47 per share, Blue Apron finished the June quarter with $61.6 million in cash down from $81.4 million at the end of 2016. As we pointed out previously, if the company were to simply hit existing EPS expectations for the back half of 2017 it means a most likely painful secondary offering or private investment in a public entity (PIPE) transaction will be needed.

The move to cut marketing spend and conserve cash led to declines in orders per customer and average orders per customer year over year, despite the improved customer count year over year. Now, this is where context and perspective come in handy – yes, Blue Apron’s customer count rose year over year in the June quarter, but it tumbled 9% compared to the March quarter. Ouch!

What this tells us is that Blue Apron is in a difficult situation – it has to carefully manage cash, but for a company that is reliant on marketing to grow its customer base, it means potentially sacrificing growth. And that’s before we consider the threat of Amazon (AMZN), which through Amazon Fresh has partnered with eMeals to take on Blue Apron and others like it. While this is a fairly new initiative, via eMeals Amazon offers gluten-free, paleo, Mediterranean, and other select lifestyle choices. We suspect there will be another salvo fired at Blue Apron as Amazon fully integrates Whole Foods in the coming months.

Even before we tackle September quarter expectations, it’s not looking good for Blue Apron, and what we’ve outlined above explains not only the rise in short interest but also the decline in institutional ownership as the share price collapsed. Generally speaking, the vast majority of institutional investors will not flirt with companies near a $5 stock price.

In terms of what’s expected when it comes to Blue Apron’s 3Q 2017 earnings, the consensus view calls for EPS of -$0.42 on revenue that is forecasted to drop 20% sequentially to $191.47 million. That bottom line loss means the company will burn through even more cash during the quarter. Think of it this way – if the management team was confident in its second half prospects, then why roll heads and introduce a “company-wide realignment”?

What if Blue Apron’s loss for the quarter is less than expected?

While that could pop the stock in the short-term, odds are the company will still be facing stiff competitive headwinds and be in a cash-constrained position. The only real question is will its cost containment efforts buy it another quarter until it hits the cash wall? Any investor will see the blood in the water and factor that into their thinking when it comes time to price the eventual offering the company will need to survive.

Aside from the quarter’s financial metrics, key items to watch inside the quarter’s earnings report will be the sequential trend in orders, customer count, orders per customer and average revenue per customer. Those will set the tone for the company’s updated outlook that if recent history holds will be shared on the 3Q 2017 earnings conference call. For those still intrigued, be sure to see how that outlook meshes with the current consensus view for the December quarter that clocks in at EPS of -$0.22 on revenue of roughly $200 million. The real upside surprise would be if the company moves up expectations for it to be break-even on the bottom line, but given recent headcount cuts and restructuring the odds are very low we will hear such talk.

Stepping back and reviewing the above, we are not expecting the company to throw a life preserver to its stock price. It is possible that 3Q 2017 metrics surprise on the upside, and this could pop the stock, but it doesn’t remove the business environment and cash need challenges Blue Apron’s business will still face. We will be looking at the upcoming pricing of meal kit competitor Hello Fresh’s initial public offering, and with its CEO’s stated goal to “become the clear No. 1 player on the U.S. market in 2018” this likely means, even more, pricing and margin pressure ahead for Blue Apron.

Bottomline, our perspective is this, if Blue Apron’s earnings report is better than expected don’t take the bait. We’ll continue to look for and invest in companies that are well positioned to ride the thematic tailwinds associated with our 17 investment themes and are well capitalized. Investors who have been around the block the time or two have seen situations like this one with Blue Apron before and it rarely ends well.

As Warren Buffett said, “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price, than a fair company at a wonderful price.” We could not agree more.

Weekly Issue: Keeping our eye on the ball as the market gyrates on earnings of the day

Weekly Issue: Keeping our eye on the ball as the market gyrates on earnings of the day

As we mentioned in this week’s Monday Morning Kickoff, we are indeed heading deeper into 3Q 2017 earnings season and that means the pace of reports is going to pick up with each passing day. On Monday, I shared which companies on the Tematica Investing Select List will be reporting earnings this week as well as how the Wall Street herd is catching up to our bullish thoughts on Cash-Strapped Consumer investment theme company Costco Wholesale (COST) and Disruptive Technology investment theme company Applied Materials (AMAT).

Yesterday I shared my thoughts on why subscribers should NOT catch the falling knife that is Blue Apron (APRN) shares – in a nutshell,  Blue Apron is facing too many thematic headwinds and other issues after recently going public. My analysis also suggests a painful secondary offering is in the cards for this company, and my thought is we should sidestep this ongoing disaster and fish in more fruitful waters. Also yesterday, Disruptive Technology investment theme company Corning (GLW) issued solid results and an upbeat outlook that moved the shares higher – more thoughts on that below.



Taking a Higher View of the Market

What we are currently seeing is a day to day fluctuation in the stock market based on the earnings reports of the day. Last Friday, General Electric (GE), Proctor & Gamble (PG) and Honeywell (HON) weighed on the market. That same downward pressure continued on Monday following results from Whirlpool (WHR). Yesterday, positive quarterly results from Caterpillar (CAT) and 3M (MMM) had the major market indices retracing their way higher. As these market moves occurred, I’d note U.S. Treasury yields hit their highest since March, but at the same time, CNNMoney’s Fear & Greed Index has continued to climb higher into Extreme Greed.

What this tells us is the market is likely to be somewhat schizophrenic based on what it hears. As the frequency of reports spikes later this week and next week, we are bound to see some wobbles in the market. Keep in mind that tomorrow (Thursday, October 26th), we will see more than 340 companies report, including Amazon (AMZN) and Alphabet (GOOGL), and those will set the tone for how the markets finish out the week.

As the litany of reports is had over the next 13 trading days, we’ll continue to use our thematic lens to ferret out confirming data points and examine new positions for the Tematica Select List. As we do this, we’ll look for opportunities to improve our cost basis in existing Select List positions, and, if need be, jettison any that are seeing their thematic tailwinds become headwinds.



Solid earnings from Corning, keeps our Buy rating intact

Yesterday, Disruptive Technology investment theme company Corning (GLW) reported 3Q 2017 results that were ahead of expectations and the company offered an upbeat outlook for what’s ahead in the coming quarter but fell shy of issuing formal guidance. For the quarter, the company reported EPS of $0.43 vs. the expected $0.41 on revenue that was modestly better than expected — $2.61 billion vs. the consensus expectation of $2.59 billion.

Parsing through the report, nearly every Corning business segment reported sequential revenue and earnings improvement with one exception. That exception would be the company’s core Display business, which while second from a revenue percentage basis behind Optical Communications, is the clear profit breadwinner for the Corning. As a reminder, these two businesses — Display and Optical Communications — account for the bulk of Corning’s sales and earnings, roughly 67% of sales and 74% of operating profits. As such, these are the two key drivers of the company’s performance and the ones we will continue to focus on.

If there was one wrinkle in the report, it was that recent wins in the Display business unit led to Corning’s operating profit to slip year over year. The sequential ramp in operating expenses for the Display business is tied to the launch of its Gorilla Glass. This new product is not only a key stable of smartphones like Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, but Corning is launching it into new markets and applications such as gasoline particulate filters, pharmaceutical glass packaging, and other automotive applications, including replacing the conventional auto glass. Walmart (WMT) recently introduced a new line of screen protectors under the name Blackweb, which uses Corning glass. And the company continues to garner wins at smartphone OEMs in emerging regions including new devices at Positivo in Brazil, LAVA in India and Polytron in Indonesia.

All of these new wins led to a sequential dip in margins for the Display business unit. We expect, however, for margins to rebound as start-up expenses associated with these recent wins fade in the coming quarters. That fade was offset by profit improvements in the company’s other businesses, especially Specialty Materials, that led to the sequential profit improvement reported by Corning.

Now, you’re probably thinking – how did the company deliver an EPS beat when its operating profit fell?

The answer is in its active buyback program, which shrank the outstanding shares by more than 8% year over year. Since announcing its plan to return more than $12.5 billion plan to shareholders in the form of stock repurchases and dividends, Corning has already returned $8.5 billion by shrinking its outstanding shares by nearly 30%, increased its dividends twice in as many years and intends to increase the dividend by at least 10% annually in 2018 and again in 2019.

When we added GLW shares to the fold exactly a month ago, we noted the company had a robust plan to return capital to shareholders. Today’s report shows the company is on track with that plan, and we suspect the management will highlight this progress on the earnings call.

All in all, we would sum the report up as being solid and expected, something investors like. We continue to see larger format displays sizes for TVs and smartphones as well as the adoption of newer connected devices in cars, homes and on people spurring demand for the company’s Display business. We also see a similar pick up in demand for the company’s Optical Fiber business as 5G wireless networks transition from beta to commercial deployments.

  • We continue to rate Corning (GLW) shares a Buy with a $37 price target.






No need to catch the falling knife that is Blue Apron, we have Amazon

No need to catch the falling knife that is Blue Apron, we have Amazon

This year we’ve seen several busted initial public offerings, and one of them is Blue Apron (APRN), which came public at near $10 and been essentially cut in half over the last four months. As was joked in the business pages, that is “less than the price of one of its meals.”

Such a sharp drop raises the question, “Could the fall in the stock be overdone?”

That’s a fair question as one of the tools in the investing kit is picking off undervalued stocks. The keyword that makes all of the difference is “undervalued” as it relies on the notion that at a certain point, other investors and the market will recognize the potential value to be had in the underlying business.

Let’s remember the impetus that led to Blue Apron landing on the busted IPO list: Amazon’s (AMZN) intent to acquire Whole Foods and trademarking its own meal kit offering. This made Blue Apron, along with Kroger (KR) and other grocery stores, the latest company to be upended by Amazon. Last week we saw Amazon add eMeals to AmazonFresh. Through the program, eMeals subscribers can now send their shopping list, which is automatically generated for all meals selected each week, to AmazonFresh as well as Walmart (WMT) Grocery and Kroger ClickList. Another thorn in the side of Blue Apron.

There was more news for Blue Apron last week as the company announced a “company-wide realignment” to “focus the company on future growth and achieving profitability…” As part of that realignment, Blue Apron said it would be cutting 6% of its workforce. Let’s remember that this comes less than a handful of months after the company went public!

But it gets worse.

Current consensus expectations have Blue Apron losing $1.56 per share this year, with bottom-line losses narrowing to -$0.73 per share in 2018. Keep in mind the company botched its first quarter as a public company when it posted a second-quarter loss of $0.47 per share vs. the expected $0.30 per share loss. That’s a huge miss out of the gate as a newly public company.

Put that out of the box earnings miss together with its headcount reductions and we have a pretty clear credibility problem with the management team, which is likely to be outclassed and out-muscled by Amazon and other grocery chains. And that raises the question as to what is Blue Apron’s competitive advantage? Recipes? Ingredients? Those can both be replicated by Amazon, especially with Whole Foods, and others as they scale up their natural and organic offerings to ride our Food with Integrity investment theme tailwind.

As we ponder that, let’s not forget that Blue Apron closed its June 2017 quarter with $63.3 million in cash on its balance sheet. That compares to the net loss of $83.8 million during the first half of 2017 and the expected net loss of that is expected to grow in the second half of the year. Simple math tells us, the company is poised to face a cash crunch or do a painful secondary offering to bring in additional cash. We’ve seen this movie before and it never has a happy ending.

The bottom line is APRN shares are cheap, and they are cheap for a reason – they are running headlong into the headwind of our Connected Society and Food with Integrity investment themes. My advice is to move along and not be tempted by the falling knife that is APRN. Better to focus on a well-positioned company that has an enviable or defendable competitive advantage. To us here at Tematica, that is Amazon (AMZN) in spades.

  • Our price target on Amazon (AMZN) shares is $1,150.
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.



Why the On-Demand Economy Doesn’t Make the Thematic Cut

Why the On-Demand Economy Doesn’t Make the Thematic Cut

We keep hearing that thematic investing is gaining significant popularity in investing circles, especially when it comes to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). For more than a decade, we’ve viewed the markets and economy through a thematic lens and have developed more than a dozen of our own investing themes that focus on several evolving landscapes. As such, we have some thoughts on this that build on chapters 4-8 in our book Cocktail Investing: Distilling Everyday Noise into Clear Investment Signals for Better Returns

One of the dangers that we’ve seen others make when attempting to look at the world thematically as we do, is that they often confuse a trend — or a “flash in the pan”  — for a sustainable shift that forces companies to respond. Examples include ETFs that invest solely in smartphones, social media or battery technologies. Aside from the question of whether there are enough companies poised to benefit from the thematic tailwind to power an ETF or other bundled security around the trend, the reality is that those are outcomes — smartphones, drones and battery technologies — are beneficiaries of the thematic shift, not the shift itself.

At Tematica Research, we have talked with several firms that are interested in incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance — or ESG — factors as part of their investment strategy. Some even have expressed the interest in developing an ETF based entirely on an ESG strategy alone. We see the merits of such an endeavor from a marketing aspect and can certainly understand the desire among socially conscious investors to ferret out companies that have adopted that strategy. But in our view and ESG strategy hacks a sustainable differentiator given that more and more companies are complying. In other words, if everyone is doing it, it’s not a differentiating theme that generates a competitive advantage that will provide investors with a significant beta from the market.

But there is a larger issue. A company’s compliance with an ESG movement is not likely to alter the long-term demand dynamics of an industry or company, even if certain businesses enjoy a short-term surge in revenues or increased investor interest based on a sense of goodwill.

For example, does the fact that Alphabet (GOOGL) targets using 100 percent renewable energy by 2018 alter the playing field or improve the competitive advantage of its core search and advertising business? Does it do either of those for YouTube?

No and no.

At the risk of offending those sensitive about their fitness acumen, it makes as much sense as investing in an ETF that only invests in companies with CEOs who wear fitness trackers. Make no mistake, our own Tematica Research Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins, a fitness tracker aficionado herself, would love to see more fitness trackers across the corporate landscape, but an ETF based on such a strategy means investing in companies across different industries with no cohesive tailwind powering their businesses, likely facing very different market forces that overshadow the impact of the one thing they have in common. To us, that misses one of the key tenants of thematic investing.

The result is a trend that is likely to be medium-lived, if not short lived. Said another way, it looks to us to be more like an investing fad, rather than a pronounced thematic driven shift that has legs.

Subscribers to our Tematica Investing newsletter know we are constantly turning over data points, looking for confirmation for our thematic lens, as well as early warning flags that a tailwind might be fading or worse, turning into a headwind. As we collect those data points, we mine the observations that bubble up to our frontal lobes and at times, ask if perhaps we have a new investing theme on our hands. Sometimes the answer is yes, but more often than not, the answer comes up “no”.

Now you’re in for a treat! Some behind the scenes action if you will on how we think about new themes and why one may not make the cut…


The On-Demand Economy:  Enough to become a new investing theme?

 Recently we received a question from a newsletter subscriber asking if the number of “on-demand” services and business emerging were enough to substantiate the addition of a new investment theme to go along with the other 17 themes we currently track.

By on-demand, we’re talking about those services where you can rent a car, (Lyft or Uber) or find private lodging (AirBnB) with the click of a button for only the time you need it rather than rent an apartment or studio for a week or month. It also refers to the many services that will deliver all the ingredients you need to prepare a gourmet meal in your own kitchen, such as the popular service Blue Apron or HelloFresh.

It was an interesting question because we have been debating this at Tematica Research for quite some time. We’re more than fans of On Demand music and streaming video services like those offered by Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX), Pandora (P), Spotify and Apple (AAPL).  Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that the real driver behind the on-demand economy is businesses stepping into fill the void created by a combination of multiple themes, rather than a new theme in of itself. Here’s what we mean . . .

Take the meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron, what’s driving the popularity of this service? We would argue that it’s not the fact that people like seeing their UPS driver more. Rather it is the result of underlying movement towards more healthy and natural foods that omit chemicals and preservatives — something we have discussed as the driver behind our Foods with Integrity theme — on top of a bigger Asset Light investment theme in which consumers and businesses outsource services, rather than accumulating assets and then performing the service themselves. The on-demand component of Blue Apron is not driving the theme, but is a beneficiary of what we call the thematic tailwind.

The challenge with the shift towards healthier cooking, that sits within our Foods with Integrity thematic, is the amount of work, and in many cases equipment, it takes to cook such foods — the shopping, the measuring, the cutting, special cooking utensils and preparation time, not to mention the cost. Recognizing this pain point, Blue Apron saw opportunity and consumers have flocked to it. As we see it, the meal delivery services are an enabler that addresses a pain point associated with our Foods with Integrity theme, rather than an independent theme unto itself.

There is also a clear element of the Connected Society investment theme behind these services, given how customers order the ingredients to prepare the meals – via an app or online – as well as our Cashless Consumption theme, given the method of payment does not involve cash or check and Asset Light whereby consumers pay for the end product, rather than investing in assets so that they can make it themselves. So that we are clear, the primary theme at play here is Foods with Integrity, but we love to see the added oomph when more than one theme is involved.


 Let’s look at Uber, the on-demand private taxi service. 

We’re big users of the service, particularly when traveling, and we love the ease of use. To us, while the service offered by Uber is very much On-Demand, from the customer perspective, it fits into our Asset Light theme, as it removes the need to own a car. If you think about, what’s?  the amount of time you spend using your car compared to the amount of time it spends parked at home, at work or in a parking lot? The monthly cost to own and maintain that vehicle vs. the actual number of hours it is used offers a convincing argument to embrace an Asset Light alternative like Uber.

We also like the payment experience — or the lack of an experience. We’re talking about having the ride fee automatically charged. No cash, no credit card swiping or inserting, no awkward “how much do I tip?” moments. It’s our Cashless Consumption theme in all of its glory, walking hand-in-hand with Asset Light — and the only thing better than a strong thematic tailwind behind a company is two!

The biggest users of the Uber and Lyft services, and the ones driving the firms’ valuations to stratospheric levels, are the Millennials who are opting to just “Uber “ around town — it’s become a verb — or use a car-sharing service like a ZipCar (ZIP) or the like.

Sure, Millennials have the reputation of being a more thrifty, frugal group compared to previous generations. But we have to wonder is it them being thrifty or just coming to grips with reality?

With crushing costs of college and student loans, as well as stagnant wage growth, many young workers are forced to cobble together part-time and contractor jobs rather than enjoying a full-time salaried position, so what choice do they have? Why buy a car and pay for it to sit there 95% of the time when you can just pay for it when you need it?

We call that the Cash-strapped Consumer theme meets Asset Light, and many businesses have also stepped in to service this rising demand for what has become known as the “sharing economy.”


Finally, what is the underlying function of all these on-demand services?

As we mentioned earlier, it’s the ability to connect and customize the services that consumers want through a smartphone app or desktop website, or from our thematic perspective, the Connected Society.

One of the key words in the previous sentence was “service.” According to data published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in December 2015 and the World Bank, the service sector accounted for 78 percent of U.S. private-sector GDP in 2014 and service sector jobs made up more than 76 percent of U.S. private-sector employment in 2014 up from 72.7% in 2004. Since then, we’ve seen several thematic tailwinds ranging from Connected Society and Cash-strapped Consumer to Asset Light and Disruptive Technologies to Foods with Integrity that either on their own, or in combination, have fostered the growth of the US service sector. Given the strength of those tailwinds, we see the services sector driving a greater portion of the US economy. What this means is folks that have relied heavily on the US manufacturing economy to power their investing playbook might want to broaden that approach.

Now let’s tackle the thematic headwinds here

Headwinds involve those companies that are not able to capitalize on the thematic tailwind. A great example is how Dollar Shave Club beat Gillette, owned by Proctor & Gamble (PG), and Schick, owned by Edgewell Personal Care (EPC), by addressing the pain point of the ever-increasing cost of razor blades with online shopping. Boom — Cash-strapped Consumer meets Connected Society.

While Gillette has flirted with its own online shave club, the price of its razor are still significantly higher, and as far as we’ve been able to tell, Schick has no such offering. As Dollar Shave Club grew and expanded its product set past razors to other personal care products, Unilever (UL) stepped in and snapped it up for $1 billion.

Going back to the beginning and the impact of the food delivery services like Blue Apron — are we likely to see food companies build their own online shopping network? Most likely not, but they are likely to partner with online grocery ordering from Kroger (KR) and other such food retailers. That still doesn’t address the shift toward healthy, prepared meals and it’s requiring a major rethink among Tyson Foods (TF), Campbell Soup (CPB), The Hershey Company (HSY), General Mills (GIS) and many others. Fortunately, we’ve seen some of these companies take actions, such as Hershey buying Krave Pure Foods and Danone SA (DANOY) acquiring WhiteWave Foods, to better position themselves within the thematic slipstream.

The key takeaway from all of this is that a thematic tailwind can be thought of as a market shift that shapes and impacts consumer behavior, forcing companies to make fundamental changes to their business model to succeed. If they don’t, or for some reason can’t, odds are their business will suffer as they fly straight into an oncoming headwind.

Recall how long Kodak was the gold standard for family photographs, yet today it is nowhere to be seen, killed by forces that emerged completely from outside its industry. As digital cameras became ubiquitous with the advent of the smartphone and the cost of data transmission and storage continually fell, the capture and sharing of images was revolutionized. Kodak didn’t keep up, thinking that film would forever be the preferred medium, and paid the ultimate price.

As thematic investors, we want to own those companies with a thematic tailwind at their back — or maybe even two or three! — and avoid those that either seem oblivious to the headwind or won’t be able to reposition themselves, like a hiker who finds he or she has already gone way too far down the wrong path and is so utterly lost, needs to be helicoptered to safety.

Of course, when it comes to these “On-Demand Economy” darlings — Uber, Dollar Shave Club, Airbnb —few if any of them are publicly traded, which frustrates us so, since most of them are tapping into more than one thematic tailwind at once. If and when they do turn to the public markets for some added capital and we get a look into the economics of these business models, then we’ll also get to see the key performance metrics and financials behind these businesses.

In the meantime, stay tuned as we will be discussing more readily investable thematics next.