Plant protein Impossible Foods inks a deal with Burger King?!?!?!

Earlier this week we posted a Signal that highlighted the change underway at the deli counter in the grocery store as part of our Clean Living investing theme. We are seeing another company respond to the changing landscape that is the shift to better for you, healthier foods as Burger King, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International, is testing a plant-based protein meat alternative with Impossible Foods.

Burger King isn’t the first fast food restaurant to adapt part of its menu to this tailwind, and odds are it won’t be the last, but it is the first (at least that we know of) that is bringing this degree of fast food scale to Impossible Foods. While there may not be a match between Impossible and Restaurant Brands’ Popeyes and Tim Hortons, we’ll be looking to see if Impossible and Burger King look to move beyond just the Impossible Whopper to other products. We’ll also be looking to see how McDonald’s, Wendy’s and others respond. Will they look to further the influence of our Clean Living investing theme on their menus, or will they instead embrace the sinful pleasure of burgers, fries and shakes that fall into our Guilty Pleasures investing theme?

The Impossible Whopper is supposed to taste just like Burger King’s regular Whopper. Unlike veggie burgers, Impossible burger patties are designed to mimic the look and texture of meat when cooked. The plant protein startup recently revealed a new recipe, designed to look and taste even more like meat. That version is being used in Burger King’s Impossible Whoppers.

Other fast food and fast casual items are also appealing to eaters with dietary restrictions or preferences. Taco Bell said in January that it’s testing out a vegetarian menu board in stores, and Chipotle (CMG) recently expanded its line of diet-based bowls to include vegan and vegetarian options. “Lifestyle bowls” launched earlier this year with Whole30 and double protein meals in addition to the keto and paleo bowls.

Impossible products are served at nearly 6,000 US restaurants right now, but the Burger King partnership is a “milestone” for the company, said Impossible Foods COO and CFO David Lee.

Source: Burger King is testing out the Impossible burger – CNN

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.

 

 

 

McDonald’s is the latest to address antibiotics usage in its beef

McDonald’s is the latest to address antibiotics usage in its beef

In the vein of better late than never, McDonald’s has announced it will join the ranks of KFC, Pizza Hut, Boston Market, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Subway and Panera in moving toward only using antibiotic-free meat at its restaurants. McDonald’s has already made this move with chicken and is targeting the same for 85% of its beef supply chain in the next few years. This doubling down is clearly part of McDonald’s move to appeal to consumers that are embracing aspects of our Clean Living investing theme, which will have reverberations across the supply chain that feed its 37,000 global locations.

McDonald’s said Tuesday that it planned to reduce the usage of antibiotics across 85 percent of its beef supply chain in the coming years, in a move designed to help curb the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.

The burger chain said it will begin working with its top beef sources to analyze and measure the current state of antibiotics usage and by 2020 would set antibiotics-usage reduction targets. Starting in 2022, McDonald’s will begin reporting its progress on the systematic reduction of antibiotics in the food it serves.

The chain has previously addressed antibiotic usage in its menu items. In 2016 in announced that it had removed antibiotics important for human medicine in chicken products in the U.S. and later expanded its efforts with stricter guidelines for its global suppliers.

McDonald’s is not the only company to introduce antibiotics usage policies in recent years. Other quick-service chains working to address this public health issue include KFC, Pizza Hut, Boston Market, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, which all have made moves toward only using antibiotic-free chicken in recent years. Subway has also joined such “clean” food-focused restaurant chains as Panera and Chipotle in working to eliminate antibiotics from its supply chain entirely by 2025. In 2016, In-N-Out Burger announced a phase-out of beef raised with antibiotics.

Source: McDonald’s to reduce antibiotics usage in beef

Panera highlights its focus on Cleaner food and drinks

Panera highlights its focus on Cleaner food and drinks

We are seeing more restaurant companies highlight their ingredient choices in the food and drinks they serve in their marketing campaigns. These companies are looking to build consumer awareness as they look to the growing portion of the population that are opting for foods, drinks, and snacks that are better for you. In other words, look to ride the tailwind associated with our Clean Living investing theme.
Recent companies looking to embrace this tailwind and distinguish themselves from their competition include Chipotle and to some extent McDonald’s, but Panera, as well as Yum Brands’ Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, were some of the early adopters. Panera, in particular, has made several strides in recent years to inform consumers about the ingredients in their offerings and in 2016 phased out artificial ingredients from its menu.
We suspect we will be seeing far more companies embrace this investing theme with their marketing materials in the days and weeks to come. Of course, it’s one thing to market that you have better for you ingredients, but a cheeseburger no matter how you make it is still going to be part of our Guilty Pleasure investing theme. Sorry, McDonald’s.

 

Panera is betting that customers want to know more about what’s in their food.

The restaurant chain announced on Tuesday that it has started identifying the amount of whole grain per serving, as well as the overall percentage of whole grain, on all of their whole-grain bread.

The strategy anticipates that health-conscious consumers will shop more at Panera if they have a better idea of what they’re eating and an easier way to incorporate healthy foods into their diets.

In 2016, the company finished phasing out artificial ingredients from its menu. Last year, Panera began disclosing the amount of added sugar and calories in its fountain drinks, and it introduced a new line of drinks with lower sugar and no artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors or preservatives. Panera observed that customers were choosing healthier drinks.

 

Source: Panera wants you to know exactly what’s in its bread – CNN

Weekly Issue: Retail Sales Report Keeps Us Bullish on UPS

Weekly Issue: Retail Sales Report Keeps Us Bullish on UPS

Key points inside this issue

  • The earnings reports of the last few days are helping the stock market find its footing, but it will still be day to day as more earnings and data is had.
  • We will continue to hold our United Parcel Service (UPS) January 2019 120.00(UPS190118C00120000) calls that closed last night at 3.64 vs. our 3.60 entry point. Our stop loss of 2.50 remains in place.
  • We are issuing a Buy on and adding the Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) January 2018 450 calls (CMG190118C00450000)that closed last night at 22.20 to the Tematica Options+ Select List. As we do this we are setting a stop loss at 14.00.
  • Programming note: Much commentary in this week’s issue centers on the September Retail Sales Report, but on this week’s soon to be released Cocktail Investing podcast, we do a deep dive on that report from a thematic perspective. Be sure to look for it.

Quite a market reversal over the last few days compared to the downward moves experienced across the board by the major stock market indices last week. In hindsight, it was a very prudent move to close our ProShares Short S&P500 (SH) November 2018 28.00 (SH181116C00028000) calls last week for combined return of about 315% – not bad for a few weeks of work, and it certainly is rather nice when a trade works out as well as that one.

I continue to think the stock market in the near-term will trade day to day based on the news of the day, be it earnings, economic data, trade or even other saber-rattling from the Chief Commander in Tweet that is President Trump. So far this week, we’ve seen a number of positive earnings reports, some a tad ugly, but on the whole the last few days have been positive for the market, giving it a tonic to rebound from last week’s pain.

 

September Retail Sales Report keeps us bullish on UPS calls

Earlier this week, we received the September Retail Sales Report, which handily confirmed the accelerating shift toward digital commerce. As you might imagine, this buoyed our  United Parcel Service (UPS) January 2019 120.00(UPS190118C00120000) calls, which closed last night at essentially breakeven with our 3.60 entry point some two weeks ago.

Per that report, Total Retail & Food Services rose 5.7% year over year while Retail climbed 4.4% compared to September 2017. Other than gas station sales, which were up more than 11% year over year in September, the other big gainer was Nonstore retailers, which saw an 11.4% increase in September retail sales vs. year ago levels. That strong level clearly confirms our investment thesis that digital shopping is taking consumer wallet share, which bodes well for our Thematic Leader position that is Amazon as well as UPS. Again, I know I sound like a broken record, but all that purchased stuff needs to get to where it is going, and UPS is well positioned to capture that volume as we move into the holiday shopping filled season. Let’s continue to hold the UPS calls, and as they inch higher, I’ll look to ratchet up our stop loss that is sitting at 2.50.

 

Adding a call position on Chipotle shares

That same September Retail Sales report also showed consumers are spending at restaurants or as the Census Bureau calls them “Food Services & Drinking Places.” Year over year, retail sales at such establishments rose 7.1% in the month of September and 8.8% for the entire September quarter. While some may say consumers are embracing the notion of “you only live once” we prefer to think of them as being part of our Living the Life investing theme, but we realize at least some consumers are likely eating at fast-casual restaurants while others eat at the likes of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG), the Thematic Leader for our Living the Life investing theme.

Earlier this week we heard fast-casual Mexican restaurant company Del Taco (TACO) espouse about the benefits of food deflation, echoing the comments made a few weeks ago from Darden (DRI). More positives to be had for our DFRG shares, but the option flow for them is rather thin and that has kept me and you away from them.

Here’s the thing, those comments are also positive for our Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) shares, or as others might call them – the Thematic Leader for our Clean Living investing theme. We also know that Chipotle is embracing digital ordering and delivery, an aspect of our Digital Lifestyle theme and we’ve seen the benefits at companies like Habit Restaurant. We also know from experience that as we enter the holiday shopping season, there is far more grab and go dining to be had.

When I put it all together, the signs are positive for the company’s business and its shares, which have fallen nearly 13% in the last month and are well in oversold territory.

All of this has me adding the Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) January 2018 450 calls (CMG190118C00450000)that closed last night at 22.20. To be fair, CMG shares are currently a battleground stock but given our long-term time horizon, I’m inclined to be patient as the new management team continues to execute its Big Fix plan but for these options, it means setting a stop loss at 14.00. Wide enough to give us time to scale in, but not so wide that we’ll lose our shirts on this position.

 

Restaurants ring up Big Data to drive sales

Restaurants ring up Big Data to drive sales

We’ve said it before and odds are we will say it again – applications for our Disruptive Innovators can come from a number of areas, including ones that are less than obvious. Big Data and its use in the restaurant industry is such an example as those companies look to overcome flat traffic trends and drive incremental purchases. How? By knowing what your preference are thanks to Big Data, mobile apps, and loyalty programs, which allow them to notify you when your preferred items, or ones that match your profile, are on sale. This likely means more pop-ups for last minute, impulse item additions like the extra guac from Chipotle courtesy of DoorDash. And yes, Chipotle is in the process of rolling out its own loyalty program.

 

Data is emerging as a powerful weapon in the increasingly competitive battle for the restaurant consumer. An explosion of food vendors—and menu items—is giving diners more choices than ever. Some restaurants say using customer data to tailor menus to their tastes can give them a leg up.

“Total restaurant traffic is not growing, so anything restaurants can do to offer a better customer experience differentiates them from the competition,” says David Portalatin, a food-industry adviser at market-research firm NPD Group Inc.

Many restaurants collect customer data through their loyalty programs, which diners can sign up for online or via an app. (After customers make a certain number of visits, they earn points that can be redeemed for discounted items or at no charge.) But the data that companies collect through such programs offer a window into the habits of only their most loyal customers, who aren’t the ones they really need to convince to return. And there are limitations to some online loyalty programs: Restaurants that collect email addresses without logging specific purchases can only send out emails about promotions to the whole customer base. An email for half-priced Frappuccinos, for example, would be wasted on someone who only ever orders coffee.

By contrast, individuals’ purchases are easier to track on mobile-order apps. Starbucks Corp. realized that its mobile app, which had only been accessible to members of its Starbucks Rewards loyalty program, could be more effective if it were open to everyone. Starbucks had 15 million active Rewards members, but it had another 60 million monthly customers it knew nothing about. Starbucks in March opened the app to everyone.

Source: How Restaurants Are Using Big Data as a Competitive Tool – WSJ

WEEKLY ISSUE: Updates on Costco, Chipotle and Adding Altria Calls to the Mix

WEEKLY ISSUE: Updates on Costco, Chipotle and Adding Altria Calls to the Mix

Key points inside this issue

 

Booking a big win on Costco calls & adding a new One

We recently boosted our price target on the Costco Wholesale (COST) shares on the Tematica Select List to $250 from $230 following the company’s latest in a growing string of robust monthly same-store sales report. As I shared, these sales figures confirm Costco continues to win consumer wallet share as well as remains on target with its new warehouse openings. As you know I like to compare those monthly results to the monthly Retail Sales report, and we’ll get the August edition on Friday morning. I suspect it will confirm what we already know about Costco.

With COST shares gapping up over the last few weeks, we’ve seen an explosion in our Costco Wholesale (COST) January 2019 230.00 (COST190118C00230000) calls that finished at 19.90 when the stock market closed yesterday. That’s a gain of just over 200%, and as much as I like our position it wouldn’t be prudent if we didn’t convert some of those paper profits into real ones. Yet, I continue to see further upside ahead for Costco as we move into the shopping-heavy months to come in 2018.

So what we’re going to do is this:

 

Boosting our stop loss on Chipotle Calls

That same August Retail Sales report that arrives on Friday will also give us a sense as to spending by consumers on restaurants, which means some indication on prospects for consumers eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG). I recently ate at one, and not only was it far cleaner than it has been in some time but the food was delicious and the service was prompt. Quite a change compared to earlier this year. I suspect I’m not the only one that has noticed some progress on the company’s “Big Fix” initiative under its new management team as CMG shares have been on an upward trajectory so far in September.

For the Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) January 2019 500 calls (CMG190118C005000000) we added last week, it means a positive move of just over 27%. As the company’s turnaround strategy continues to take hold, I continue to see more upside to be had in the underlying shares as well as the calls. That said, we still want to be prudent and that means boosting our stop loss to 29.00 from 19.00, which means worst case if we get stopped out we’ll be walking away with at least something of a profit.

 

Adding a new call position on Altria shares

As part of our investment theme recasting over the last few weeks, we added shares of Big Tobacco company Altria (MO) and its impressive dividend yield to the fold. Since then, we’ve gotten some positive developments in that, as I suspected, Altria confirmed that it is examining the cannabis space, and the FDA announced a crackdown on e-cigarettes “if manufacturers do not control widespread teen use.” Both developments sent MO shares higher, but the threefold combination of potentially moving into the cannabis space, the recently boosted dividend and potential ban of e-cigarettes that would like goose demand for Altria’s tobacco-based smokeable products as well as smokeless ones are likely to drive MO shares even higher in the coming months, toward our $81 price target.

For that reason, I am adding the Altria (MO) January 2019 65.00 (MO190118C00065000)  calls that closed last night 2.18 to the Select List. For now, we’ll set a wide berth with a 1.00 stop loss, and as MO shares and our calls move higher, we’ll step that stop loss up accordingly.

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Lots of Activity Around Costco, Chipotle, Netflix and Alibaba

WEEKLY ISSUE: Lots of Activity Around Costco, Chipotle, Netflix and Alibaba

Key points inside this issue:

 

Boosting the stop loss on our Costco Wholesale calls

Our shares of Costco Wholesale (COST) on the Tematica Investing Select List have been on a tear of late, rising 20% since June 1. We chalk this up to the data that shows consumers contending with rising prices while wage gains lag behind – in other words supporting data for COST shares and our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme.

With last night’s COST closing price at $235.61, our Costco Wholesale (COST) January 2019 230.00 (COST190118C00230000) calls have moved past their strike price, finishing trading at 14.55, up 120% from our 6.60 buy in just over a month ago. Quite a move and one that we want to protect, which is why we are boosting our stop loss level to 13.20 from 10.00, locking in a 100% return on the position.

Just because we are smartening up our defense, doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted the potential upside in COST share or our calls. After tonight’s close, Costco will report its August same-store-sales results, and if the string of impressive reports continues, which I think likely, we are likely to see Wall Street boost its price targets on COST shares. If that occurs, we should see our calls continue to chug higher. I’ll be analyzing the report once it hits the tape after tomorrow’s market close, and if we need to make some adjustments with our call position, I’ll be sure to issue a special alert. I remain bullish on the underlying COST shares as we head into the shopping filled last few months of the year.

 

Adding a call option play on Chipotle shares

As part of our Clean Living investing theme, we very recently added the shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) to the Tematica Investing Select List. As I noted with that addition, CMG shares have been volatile of late, but the company’s new management team is in the midst of implementing its turnaround strategy that has been dubbed the “Big Fix.” Having recently eaten at a Chipotle, I can attest to a new found cleanliness in the restaurant, and far better-tasting food with better service than I have seen in months. That’s the low hanging fruit in the turnaround strategy with more to come, which should attract old and new diners even before the marketing, digital reward and delivery aspects of the strategy take hold.

As we’ve seen before, these turnarounds take time and sometimes they can get caught up in a few steps forward and one or two back. For that reason, we are going to cast a wide berth on CMG call options, looking to capture the potential turnaround benefits over the next two quarters. That lands us in January, and we will select the 500 strike price because of the upside to be had in the shares and due to those being the most liquid of the January 2019 calls.

 

Housekeeping on our stopped out Netflix and Alibaba calls

This week’s pressure on the technology stalks including shares of streaming video and original content company Netflix (NFLX), which pushed our two call option positions below their respective stop loss levels. While those stops not only limited potential losses but resulted in our keeping two profitable positions intact. To be more specific, we were stopped out of the Netflix (NFLX) Jan 2019 400.00 (NFLX190118C00400000)calls at 20.00 yesterday, well above their closing price of 14.45, which netted a profit of more than 26% given our 15.80 entry point.

Turning to the Netflix (NFLX) Jan 2019 350 calls (NFLX190118C00350000) calls, we were stopped out at 40.00, which resulted in a return of just over 29% since adding the calls less than two weeks ago at 30.90. Last night those calls closed at 31.00.

We were also stopped out of our Alibaba Feb. 2019 180.00 calls (BABA190215C00180000) as they crossed our 10.00 stop loss on their way to closing last night at 8.60. While we’re never pleased with a losing position, our use of the stop loss tool capped our losses at just 34.5% vs. the potential loss of almost 44% based on last night’s closing price.

These stop outs are never fun, and while they can leave a bitter taste in our mouths, as in the Alibaba case, strategic usage can help lock in gains when the underlying shares get a little topsy-turvy. We’ll let the recent volatility of the underlying Netflix and Alibaba shares, we’ll sit back and let the shares cool off before revisiting alternative call option positions.

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: A Guilty Pleasure or a Habit? In this case it’s the same

WEEKLY ISSUE: A Guilty Pleasure or a Habit? In this case it’s the same

 

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ALERT:

  • We are adding shares of Habit Restaurant (HABT) to the Tematica Investing Select List as part of our Guilty Pleasure investing theme with an $11.50 price target.
  • We are boosting our price target on USA Technologies (USAT) shares to $12 from $11 following robust margin performance in the March quarter and strong prospects for more realized synergies with its Cantaloupe acquisition and new Ingenico relationship.
  • After reporting March quarter earnings that saw its net asset value per share continue to climb, we continue to rate GSV Capital (GSVC) shares a Buy with an $11 price target.

 

After formally adding shares of Disruptive Technology company AXT Inc. (AXTI) back to the Tematica Investing fold earlier this week, we’ve got a jam-packed issue this week that includes a new recommendation that brings an active position in our Guilty Pleasure investing theme onto the Tematica Investing Select List. Let’s get to it…

Adding Habit Restaurant shares to the Tematica Investing Select List

People need to eat. That’s a pretty recognizable fact. Some may eat more than others, some may eat less; some may eat meat, others may not. But at the end of the day, we need food.

As investors, we recognize this and that means considering where and what consumers eat, and also identifying companies that are poised to benefit from other opportunities. One such opportunity is geographic expansion, and with restaurants it often means expanding across the United States.

Typically, expansion is driven by new store openings, which in turn drive sales. Tracing back its expansion over the last several years, Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) had to build up to 2,363 locations. Even with that number of locations, per Chipotle’s recently filed 10-K, the company still expects to “open between 130 and 150 new restaurants in 2018.” At that pace, it would take quite a while before Chipotle has as many locations as McDonald’s (MCD) (more than 14,000) or Starbucks (SBUX) (just under 14,000) in the U.S. exiting last year.

A little over a year ago, Restaurant Brands (QSR), the company behind Tim Hortons and Burger King, acquired Popeye’s in part for food-related synergies but also the opportunity to grow Popeye’s through geographic expansion. In 2016, Popeye’s had some 2,600 locations compared to more than 7,500 Burger Kings in the U.S. For those wondering, that’s greater than the 2,251 locations Jack in the Box (JACK) had in 2017.

And that brings us to a quick service with a California char-grill twist restaurant that is Habit Restaurant (HABT). With just 209 Habit Burger Grill fast casual locations in 11 states spread between the two coasts, Habit has ample room to expand its concept serving flame char-grilled burgers and sandwiches, fries, salads and shakes. And if you’re wondering how good Habit is, I took the liberty of trying its products and sampling its friendly service at one of the few East coast locations — it’s work, someone had to do it. I can certainly understand why this Guilty Pleasure company was named “best tasting burger in America” in July 2014.

In 2017, the company recorded revenue of $331.7 million from which it generated EPS of $0.16. For this year, consensus expectations have it serving up revenue near $393 million, up around 18% year over year, but EPS of $0.05 — a sharp drop from 2017.

What we’re seeing is Habit hitting an inflection point as it engages a national advertising agency, opens 30 new locations this year and contends with higher wage costs (up 6%-7% vs. 2017), as well as test markets breakfast. Inflection point stocks can be tricky largely because even as things go right there can be mishaps along the way. With the company expected to open the greatest number of new locations during the March quarter, I put the shares on the back burner in early March when they were near $10 with a note to follow up after the company reported the March quarter.

Last week, Habit issued its quarterly results with year over year revenue growth near 17%, but still out of reach compared to consensus expectations, and it also missed on the bottom line. Following that report, HABT shares fell x%, bottoming our near $8.20 before settling at $8.60.

What led to the shortfall?

During the March quarter, Habit opened 11 new company-owned locations – more than the expected 7-10 for the quarter — more than one-third of its targeted new openings for 2018. Another factor was rising costs in the form of inputs (beef and chicken in the protein complex and French fries) as well as higher labor costs, particularly in California, during its peak promotional activity.

Now for the positive developments. First, to offset those higher costs the company is implementing a 3.9% menu price hike at the end of May. Second, its expansion plans – with another 20 or so company restaurants this year and 6-8 franchised locations  —remain on track with but at a slower open rate compared to the March quarter.

This expansion should help improve the company’s geographic footprint further as it follows the three new east coast locations openings (Maryland, New Jersey) opened during the March quarter. During the earnings call, the company shared that roughly 20% of its company-operated growth will be on the east coast and about 50% will be drive through locations. On another note, the company is testing a breakfast menu, which in our view is a long-term positive given that per NPD Group findings, breakfast is the fastest growing meal with 80% of that growing being had a quick service restaurants.

Now here’s the thing – no matter what metric you look at for the shares OTHER than P/E they are cheap.  The shares are currently trading at 8.0x on an enterprise value to 2018 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) basis, which is more than 40% discount to the peer group that includes Jack in the Box (JACK), Wendy’s (WEN) and other quick-service restaurants. Some of that discount is warranted as Habit has to wind its way through some likely growing pains, but as I shared above the longer-term driver of the company’s success will be geographic expansion. It bears repeating — we’ve seen this time and time again with restaurant companies ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks (SBUX), Chipotle (CMG) back in the day and Del Taco (TACO) more recently. There is also the chance that another quick service chain will pull a Restaurant Brands-Popeye’s move to jumpstart its own growth metrics.

With more than 25% upside to our $11.50 price target, which is still a discount to the quick service peer group, and modest downside following the news of the March quarter, the risk to reward profile in HABT shares is rather tasty. As the company continues to expand its footprint East, I’ll continue to review the impact on the business – good and bad — as well as the bottom line and what it means for our price target.

  • We are adding shares of Habit Restaurant (HABT) to the Tematica Investing Select List as part of our Guilty Pleasure investing theme with an $11.50 price target.

 

Robust margins lead us to boost our price target for USAT shares

Yesterday morning USA Technologies (USAT) reported March quarter results that pushed the shares higher in morning trading, and has us nudging our price target to $12 from $11 in response. For the quarter, USA achieved EPS of $0.04, beating the consensus by $0.03, despite missing revenue expectations for the period by just over 6%, as the company’s gross margin rose to more than 33% vs. 25.0% in the year-ago quarter.

That jump in profitability reflects continued growth in USA’s total mobile payment connection base as well as sustained growth in the dollar transaction volume carried over those connections. Exiting the quarter, USA’s total connection base stood at 969,000 across 15,600 customers (up from 504,000 and 12,400, respectively exiting March 2017), with transaction volume climbing to $318 million, up 57% higher year over year.  USA’s margins also benefitted from realized synergies from its November 2017 acquisition of Cantaloupe Systems. As a reminder, Cantaloupe utilizes cloud-based, mobile technologies to offer an integrated end-to-end vending and payment solution for cashless vending, dynamic route scheduling, automated pre-kitting and merchandising and inventory management.

We continue to see that as extremely synergistic with USA’s mobile payment platform for vending and other unattended retail applications, with more incremental revenue and profit synergies to be had in the coming quarters. Central among those synergies is new customer engagements, which should drive additional mobile payment connections and customer growth. Also adding to that is the recently inked multi-year with payment processing firm Ingenico that pairs Ingenico’s hardware, software, security and services products with USA’s mobile payment services platform. As the company’s results and guidance, including the margin commentary, are digested, we expect 2018 EPS to move higher from the pre-earnings report consensus of $0.06 for this year and $0.13 next year.

Do we continue to think that USAT will emerge as a potential takeout candidate as the mobile payment industry continues to grow and mature? Yes, but that does not factor into our new price target of $12.

  • We are boosting our price target on USA Technologies (USAT) shares to $12 from $11 following robust margin performance in the March quarter and strong prospects for more realized synergies with its Cantaloupe acquisition and new Ingenico relationship.

 

Net asset value per share continues to climb at GSV Capital

Last night shares of Asset-lite company GSV Capital (GSVC) reported mixed March quarter results with a beat on the bottom line and a miss on the top line. As I’ve shared before, the real driver of GSV’s shares price is not revenue or earnings, but the trajectory of its investment portfolio, which we measure through its net asset value per share. Exiting the March quarter, that portfolio’s net assets across 29 positions totaled approximately $210.5 million, or $9.99 per share up from to $9.64 per share at the end of 2017, and $8.83 per share exiting the March 2017 quarter.

The company’s top five holdings, which included privately held Palantir Technologies, Spotify (SPOT), Dropbox (DBX), private company Coursera and NESTGVS, accounted for 58% of GSV’s investment portfolio exiting March vs. 39% in the year ago quarter. With consensus price targets of $157 and $33 for Spotify and Dropbox shares, respectively, we continue to see added lift in the company’s net asset value per share. Should the company’s largest holding in Palantir Technologies go public as is widely postulated or be acquired, we would have a third leg to the stool driving GSV’s net asset value growth higher.

Helping the net asset value per share comparisons, GSV repurchased 1.1 million shares during the quarter for $6.2 million, which reduced the shares outstanding by 5% year over year. Following the upsizing of the company’s share repurchase program by an additional $5 million, GSV has roughly $8.8 million remaining. At current levels, the company could repurchase another 1.25 million shares, shrinking its outstanding share count by 6%.

  • After reporting March quarter earnings that saw its net asset value per share continue to climb, we continue to rate GSV Capital (GSVC) shares a Buy with an $11 price target.