Tematica Investing: Thematic Tailwinds for 2019 and Scaling into AXON

Tematica Investing: Thematic Tailwinds for 2019 and Scaling into AXON

 

Key Points Inside this Issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Earnings expectations are being revised lower

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Thematic tailwinds will continue to drive profits and stock prices

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

TEMATICA INVESTING 

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

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

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

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

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

 

New bowls at Chipotle signal the Big Fix continues

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

 

Adding to Axon Enterprises as EPS expectations move higher

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

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

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

 

Del Frisco’s shares jump on takeout speculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Key Points Inside this Issue:

 

 

CONTEXT AND PERSPECTIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Earnings expectations are being revised lower

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Thematic tailwinds will continue to drive profits and stock prices

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

TEMATICA INVESTING 

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

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

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

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

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

 

New bowls at Chipotle signal the Big Fix continues

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

 

Adding to Axon Enterprises as EPS expectations move higher

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

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

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

 

Del Frisco’s shares jump on takeout speculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TEMATICA OPTIONS+

Adding a call position on Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Weekly Issue: Among the Volatility, We See Several Thematic Confirming Data Points

Weekly Issue: Among the Volatility, We See Several Thematic Confirming Data Points

Key points inside this issue:

  • As expected, news of the day is the driver behind the stock market swings
  • Data points inside the September Retail Sales Report keep us thematically bullish on the shares of Amazon (AMZN), United Parcel Service (UPS) and Costco Wholesale. Our price targets remain $$2,250, $130 and $250, respectively.
  • We use the recent pullback to scale further into our Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) shares at better prices, our price target remains $14.
  • Netflix crushes subscriber growth in the September quarter; Our price target on Netflix (NFLX) shares remains $500.
  • September quarter earnings from Ericsson (ERIC) and Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) paint a favorable picture from upcoming reports from Nokia (NOK) and AXT Inc. Our price targets on Nokia and AXT shares remain $8.50 and $11, respectively.
  • Walmart embraces our Digital Innovators investment theme
  • Programming note: Much commentary in this week’s issue centers on the September Retail Sales Report. On this week’s Cocktail Investing podcast, we do a deep dive on that report from a thematic perspective. 

 

As expected, news of the day is the driver behind the stock market swings

If there is one thing we can say about the domestic stock market over the last week, it remains volatile. While there are other words that one might use to describe the down, up, down move over the last week, but volatile is probably the most fitting. Last week I shared the market would likely trade based on the data of the day — economic, earnings or political — and that seems to have been the case. While we’ve received several solid earnings reports, including one from Thematic Leader Netflix (NFLX), several banks and even a few airlines, the headline economic data came up soft for September Retail Sales and Housing.

And then there was yesterday’s FOMC minutes from the Fed’s September monetary policy meeting, which showed that even though the Fed expects to remain on its tightening path, subject to the data to be had, several members of the committee see “a period where the Fed even will need to go beyond normalization of rates and into a more restrictive stance.”

Odds are we can expect further tweets from President Trump on this given his prior comments that the Fed is one of his greatest risks. I also expect this to reignite concerns for the current expansion, particularly since the Fed has historically done a good job hiking interest rates into a recession. From a thematic perspective, continued rate hikes by the Fed is likely to put some added pressure on Middle-Class Squeeze consumers. Before you freak out, let’s check the data. The economy is still growing, adding jobs, benefiting from lower taxes and regulation. It’s not about to fall off a cliff in the near term, but yes, the longer the current expansion goes, the greater the risk of something more than just a slower economy. More reasons to keep watching the monthly data.

Here’s the good news, inside that data and elsewhere we continue to receive confirming signals for our 10 investing themes as well as favorable data points for the Thematic Leaders and other positions on the Tematica Investing Select List.

 

Several positives in the September Retail Sales report for AMZN, UPS & COST

Cocktail Investing Podcast September Retail Sales Report

With the consumer directly or indirectly accounting for nearly two-thirds of the domestic economy and the average consumer spending 31% of his or her paycheck on retails goods, this monthly report is one worth monitoring closely.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s September 2018 Retail Sales report. First, let’s talk about the headline miss that was making the rounds yesterday. Yes, the month over month comparison Total Retail & Food Services excluding motor vehicles & parts fell 0.1%, but Retail rose 0.4% on the same basis. The thing is, most tend to focus on those sequential comparisons, but as investors, we examine year over year comparisons when it comes to measuring revenue, profit and EPS growth. On that basis, Total Retail & Food Services rose 5.7% year over year while Retail climbed 4.4% compared to September 2017. That sounds pretty solid if you ask me. Now, let’s dig into the meat of the report and what it means for several of our thematic holdings.

Right off the bat, we can’t ignore the 11.4% year over year increase in gas station sales during September, which capped off a 17.2% increase for the September 2018 quarter. With such an increase owing to the rise in oil and gas prices, we would expect to see weakness in several of the retail sales categories as the cost of filling up the car saps spending at the margin and confirms our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme. And we saw just that. Department stores once again fell in September vs. year ago levels as did Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, & bookstores. Given recent construction as well as housing starts data, the Building material & garden eq. & supplies dealer category posted slower year over year growth, which was hardly surprising.

Other than gas station sales, the other big gainer was Nonstore retailers – Census Bureau speak for e-tailers and digital commerce that are part of Digital Lifestyle investing theme,  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 continues to take consumer wallet share, which bodes well for our Amazon (AMZN), United Parcel Service (UPS), and to a lesser extent our Costco Wholesale (COST). With consumers feeling the pressure of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme, I continue to see them embracing the Digital Lifestyle to ferret out deals and bargains to stretch their after-tax spending dollars, especially as we head into the holiday shopping season.

Sticking with Costco, the company recently reported its U.S. same-store-sales grew 7.7% for September excluding fuel and currency. Further evidence that Costco also continues to gain consumer wallet share compared to retail and food sales establishments as well as the General Merchandise Store category.

  • Data points inside the September Retail Sales Report keep us thematically bullish on the shares of Amazon (AMZN), United Parcel Service (UPS) and Costco Wholesale. Our price targets remain $2,250, $130 and $250, respectively.

 

Scaling deeper into Del Frisco’s shares

Now let’s dig into the report as it relates to Del Frisco Restaurant Group, our Thematic Leader for the Living the Life investing theme. Per the Census Bureau, retail sales at food services & drinking places rose 7.1% year over year in September, which brought its year-over-year comparison for the September quarter to 8.8%. Clearly, consumers are spending more at restaurants, than eating at home. Paired with beef price deflation that has been confirmed by Darden Restaurants (DRI), this bodes well for profit growth at Del Frisco.

Against those data points, I’m using the blended 12.5% drop in DFRG shares since we added them to our holdings to improve our costs basis.

  • We are using the recent pullback to scale further into our Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) shares at better prices, our price target remains $14.

 

Netflix crushes subscriber growth in the September quarter

Tuesday night Netflix (NFLX) delivered a crushing blow to skeptics as it served up an EPS and net subscriber adds beat that blew away expectations and guided December quarter net subscriber adds above Wall Street’s forecast. This led NFLX shares to pop rather nicely, which was followed by a number of Wall Street firms reiterating their Buy ratings and price targets.

Were there some investors that were somewhat unhappy with the continued investment spend on content? Yes, and I suppose there always will be, but as we are seeing its that content that is driving subscriber growth and in order to drive net new adds outside the US, Netflix will continue to invest in content. As we saw in the company’s September quarter results, year to date international net subscriber adds is 276% ahead of those in the US. Not surprising, given the service’s launch in international markets over the last several quarters and corresponding content ramp for those markets.

Where the content spending becomes an issue is when its subscriber growth flatlines, which will likely to happen at some point, but for now, the company has more runway to go. I say that because the content spend so far in 2018 is lining its pipeline for 2019 and beyond. With its international paid customer base totaling 73.5 million users, viewed against the global non-US population, it has a way to go before it approaches the 45% penetration rate it has among US households.  This very much keeps Netflix as the Thematic Leader for our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

One other thing, as part of this earnings report Netflix said it plans to move away from reporting how many subscribers had signed up for free trials during the quarter and focus on paid subscriber growth. I have to say I am in favor of this. It’s the paying subscribers that matter and will be the key to the stock until the day comes when Netflix embraces advertising revenue. I’m not saying it will, but that would be when “free” matters. For now, it’s all about subscriber growth, retention, and any new price increases.

That said, I am closely watching all the new streaming services that are coming to market. Two of the risks I see are a recreation of the cable TV experience and the creep higher in streaming bill totals that wipe out any cord-cutting savings. Longer-term I do see consolidation among this disparate services playing out repeating what we saw in the internet space following the dot.com bubble burst.

  • Our price target on Netflix (NFLX) shares remains $500.

 

What earnings from Ericsson and Taiwan Semiconductor mean for Nokia and AXT

This morning mobile infrastructure company Ericsson (ERIC) and Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) did what they said was positive for our shares of Nokia (NOK) and AXT Inc. (AXTI).

In its earnings comments, Ericsson shared that mobile operators around the globe are preparing for 5G network launches as evidenced by the high level of field trials that are expected to last at such levels over the next 12-18 months. Ericsson also noted that North America continues to lead the way in terms of network launches, which confirms the rough timetable laid out by AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and even T-Mobile USA (TMUS) with China undergoing large 5G field trials as well. In sum, Ericsson described the 5G momentum as strong, which helped drive the company’s first quarter of organic growth since 3Q 2014. That’s an inflection point folks, especially since the rollout of these mobile technologies span years, not quarters.

Turning to Taiwan Semiconductor, the company delivered a top and bottom line beat relative to expectations. Its reported revenue rose just shy of 12% quarter over quarter (3.3% year over year) led by a 24% increase in Communication chip demand followed by a 6% increase in Industrial/Standard chips. In our view, this confirms the strong ramp associated with Apple’s (AAPL) new iPhone models as well as the number of other new smartphone models and connected devices slated to hit shelves in the back half of 2018. From a guidance perspective, TSM is forecasting December quarter revenue of $9.35-$9.45 billion is well below the consensus expectation of $9.8 billion, but before we rush to judgement, we need to understand how the company is accounting for currency vs. slowing demand. Given the seasonal March quarter slowdown for smartphone demand vs. the December quarter and the lead time for chips for those and other devices, we’d rather not rush to judgement until we have more pieces of data to round out the picture.

In sum, the above comments set up what should be positive September quarter earnings from Nokia and AXT in the coming days. Nokia will issue its quarterly results on Oct. 25, while AXT will do the same on Oct. 31. There will be other companies whose results as well as their revised guidance and reasons for those changes will be important signs posts for these two as well as our other holdings. As those data points hit, we’ll be sure to absorb that information and position ourselves accordingly.

  • September quarter earnings from Ericsson (ERIC) and Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) paint a favorable picture from upcoming reports from Nokia (NOK) and AXT Inc. Our price targets on Nokia and AXT shares remain $8.50 and $11, respectively.

 

Walmart embraces our Digital Innovators investment theme

Yesterday Walmart (WMT) held its annual Investor Conference and while much was discussed, one of the things that jumped out to me was how the company is transforming  itself to operate in the “dynamic, omni-channel retail world of the future.” What the company is doing to reposition itself is embracing a number of aspects of our Disruptive Innovators investing theme, including artificial intelligence, robotics, inventory scanners, automated unloading in the store receiving dock, and digital price tags.

As it does this, Walmart is also making a number of nip and tuck acquisitions to improve its footing with consumers that span our Middle-Class Squeeze and in some instances our Living the Life investing theme as well our Digital Lifestyle one.  Recent acquisitions include lingerie company Bare Essentials and plus-sized clothing startup Eloquii. Other acquisitions over the last few quarters have been e-commerce platform Shoebuy, outdoor apparel retailer Moosejaw, women’s wear site Modcloth, direct-to-consumer premium menswear brand Bonobos, and last-mile delivery startup Parcel in September.

If you’re thinking that these moves sound very similar to ones that Amazon (AMZN) has made over the years, I would quickly agree. The question percolating in my brain is how does this technology spending stack up against expectations and did management boost its IT spending forecast for the coming year? As that answer becomes clear, I’ll have some decisions to make about WMT shares and if we should be buyers as we move into the holiday shopping season.

 

Adding more Del Frisco’s to our plate following several bullish data points

Adding more Del Frisco’s to our plate following several bullish data points

Key points inside this issue

  • We are scaling into shares of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) following several bullish data points from last week. Our price target for DFRG shares remains $14.
  • Our price target on Amazon (AMZN) remains $2,250
  • Our price target on United Parcel Service (UPS) shares remains $130
  • Our price target on Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) shares remains $550
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) remains $250
  • I am reviewing our current price target of $130 for shares of McCormick & Co.
  • Last week’s podcast – Lithium Ion Batteries: The Enabler of the Digital Lifestyle
  • Last week’s Thematic Signals

Last Friday we received a number of positive data points for restaurant spending, which coupled with the latest US Department of Agriculture report on falling beef prices has me using the recent weakness in our Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) shares to improve our cost basis. Since adding DFRG shares to the portfolio, they’ve fallen nearly 10% since the end of August and just over 3% since we added them to our holdings despite favorable economic and industry reports. Part of that downward pressure came from Stephens throwing in the towel on its bullish stance on the shares last Wednesday. It would appear that Stephens jumped the gun given the favorable data that emerged later in the week.

Let’s review all of those data points…

 

August Retail Sales

The August Retail Sales report saw its headline figure come in at +0.1% month over month missing expectations of +0.4% and marked the slowest gain since February suggesting persistently high gas prices could be taking a bite out of consumer spending. With prospects for higher gas prices ahead following last week’s greater than expected crude inventory drawdown reported by the Department of Energy and the greater than expected jump in Total Consumer Credit for January, it would appear that Middle-Class Squeeze consumers slowed their spending in August vs. July. Hat tip to Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist, Lenore Hawkins, and her coverage of those data points in last Friday’s Weekly Wrap. If I’m reading it, so should you.

Turning to the year over year view, August retail sales rose 6.2%, led by a more than 20% increase in gas station sales due to the aforementioned gas prices, and continued gains in Nonstore retailers (+10.4%) and food services & drinking places (+10.1%). Over the last three months, these last two categories are up 9.9% and 9.5% year over year, even as gas station sales are up nearly 21% by comparison. Those figures bode extremely well for our Digital Lifestyle positions in Amazon (AMZN) and United Parcel Service (UPS), our Clean Living holding that is Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, a Living the Life company.

The report also offered confirming context for our shares in Costco Wholesale (COST) as its August same-store sales handily beat those contained in the August Retail Sales report. Also inside this latest missive from the U.S. Department of Commerce, grocery store sales rose 4.3% year over year in August, which keeps me bullish on our shares of McCormick & Co. (MKC) even as they hover over our current $130 price target.

In terms of areas reporting declines in August Retail Sales Report, we continue to see pressure at Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, & bookstores (-3.9%) and Department Stores (-0.7%), continuing the trend of the last few months. With Amazon continuing to flex its business model as well as its own line of private label products, including fashion, sportswear, and apparel, as well as continued digital commerce gains at Walmart (WMT) and its Bonobos brand, we see these retail categories remaining challenged in the coming months.

 

August restaurant data from TDN2K

On Friday we also received figures from TDn2K’s Black Box Intelligence that showed August same-store restaurant sales rose +1.8%, the best highest since 2015. TDn2K’s data is based on weekly sales from over 30,000 locations representing more than 170 brands and nearly $70 billion in annual sales. More positives for our positions in Chipotle and Del Frisco’s. I’ll tuck this data point away as well as the July and eventual September one to compare them against same-store sales quarterly results for out two restaurant holdings.

 

US Department of Agriculture

The most recent data published on Friday by the US Department of Agriculture showed cow prices were down 13.6% year over year in July, continuing the trend of double-digit year over year declines that began this past May. I see this as confirmation of deflationary beef prices that bode well for both margins and EPS gains at both Del Frisco’s and to a lesser extent Chipotle.

Later this week, I’ll look for further confirmation of beef deflation leverage when Darden Restaurants (DRI), the parent of Capitol Grill reports its quarterly earnings.

 

Scaling into Del Frisco’s shares

The net result of these three Friday data points has me adding to our Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group shares at current levels. If our Chipotle shares were lower than our entry point, I’d be doing the same, but they aren’t – if they do fall below the $473 layer, all things being equal I’d look to repeat today’s actions but with CMG shares.

  • We are scaling into shares of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) following several bullish data points from last week. Our price target for DFRG shares remains $14.
WEEKLY ISSUE: Some Underperformers Set to Come out from the Shadows

WEEKLY ISSUE: Some Underperformers Set to Come out from the Shadows

Monday was one of those sort-of holidays that saw banks, the post office and schools closed, but domestic stock markets and a number of other businesses open. The result was once again a more subdued start to the week that leads into what is poised to be a focal point for the stock market as 3Q 2017 earnings kickoff. Over the last several days, we saw through earnings from restaurant company Darden (DRI) and Cal-Maine Foods (CALM) and this week the negative 2017 reset from coatings company Axalta Coating Systems (AXTA). This tells me that not only has Wall Street underestimated the impact of September’s hurricane trifecta — a fact we saw in last Friday’s September Employment Report — but it has likely overestimated the current speed of the economy as well.

The next few days will give way to several economic reports that will more fully shine a light on the true speed of the economy, and they will help set the table for what is to come over the next few weeks as literally thousands of companies report. As subscribers, you know through our weekly Thematic Signals and our Cocktail Investing Podcast that I co-host with our Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins, we are constantly scrutinizing data points with our thematic lens and assessing the market.

Now let’s take a look at our overall market view, which is one of the key backdrops when it comes to investing – thematic or otherwise. As we shared on last week’s podcast, the domestic stock market continues to grind its way higher ahead of 3Q 2017 earnings. This march higher is being fueled in part by the return of investor greed as measured by CNNMoney’s Fear & Greed Index. The question we are increasingly pondering is what are those late to the party seeing that allows them to get comfortable with enough upside to now jump into a market that is trading at more than 19x expected 2017 earnings?

With the market priced to perfection and expectations running high, odds are we are bound to see some disappointment. The fact that margin debt is running at record levels is not lost on us here at Tematica, and it has the potential to exacerbate any near-term bump or pullback in the market.

This has us holding steady with the Tematica Select List, but it doesn’t mean we are being idle. Rather, we are scrutinizing contenders and revisiting price points at which we would scale into existing positions. Not quite our 2017 holiday shopping list, but one that as we approach Halloween could be ripe for harvesting.

 

 

Checking in on some of our outperformers

We’ve benefitted from this push higher as the Select List’s positions in LSI Industries (LYTS), Amplify Snacks (BETR), USA Technologies (USAT), Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOGL) and International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) have outperformed the month to date move in the S&P 500. With USAT shares, this has them closing in on our $6.50 price target, while the others have ample upside to our respective price targets.

We continue to rate these stocks as follows:

  • Our price target on LSI Industries (LYTS) remains $10.00
  • Our price target on Amplify Snacks (BETR) remains $10.50
  • Our price target on Amazon (AMZN) remains $1,150
  • Our price target on Alphabet (GOOGL) remains $1,050

With USA Technologies (USAT) shares, we will continue to keep them on the Select List and as we reassess our Thematic Signals and other data points for additional upside to be had relative to our $6.50 price target.

The same is true with International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), given the accelerating shift away from sugar toward food that is good for you vs. the modest upside to our current $150 price target.

 

It’s not all bad news for the underperformers however

While we like to focus on the outperformers, we tend to spend as much, if not more time, on the ones that are underperforming. Currently, that means shares of Costco Wholesale (COST), Nokia (NOK), MGM Resorts (MGM) and recently added United Parcel Service (UPS).

In reverse order, shares of Connected Society derivative company UPS shares came under pressure following comments that Amazon is once again flirting with expanding its own logistics business. While this may happen, it will take years to replicate the hub and spoke to home delivery service currently offered by UPS that is poised to benefit from the accelerating shift to digital commerce this holiday shopping season. We remain bullish on this position and expect the shares to rebound as we move into the 2017 holiday shopping season. We will look to scale into UPS shares closer to $110 should such a pullback in the shares emerges this earnings season.

Shares of Guilty Pleasure company MGM Resorts continue to languish following the recent Las Vegas shooting. In our view, it will take some time for the perception of the business to recover. As that time elapses, we’ll look to improve our cost basis following the better than expected August Nevada gaming data. Below $30 is where we are inclined to make our move, and our price target stands at $37.

We continue to see favorable data on 5G testing and deployments that bode very well for Nokia’s intellectual property business as well as its communications infrastructure business. Much like MGM shares we will be patient and look to opportunistically improve the cost basis on this Disruptive Technologies Select List position.

We have a more detailed look at Cash-Strapped Consumer company Costco down below, but as you’ll soon read we continue to favor the shares despite some concerning developments.

 

So, what’s up with Costco Wholesale?

As we mentioned above Costco is one of the recent underperformers and it comes following last week’s better than expected quarterly earnings results. The issue is that its the earnings call Costco shared that it is seeing a slowdown in membership rates, which Wall Street took to mean “Here comes Amazon!” While we agree that Amazon is set to continue disrupting traditional retail as it leverages Whole Foods into grocery and meal kits, and continues to focus on apparel, Costco’s issue is it opened 16 new warehouses during the first 9 months of its recently completed fiscal year, so odds are it would see some slowing in membership growth.

For those not convinced that Costco’s business is thriving we would point out the following:

  • September 2017: Net sales up 12%
  • August 2017: Net sales up 10.0% year over year with comparable stores sales up 7.3% (up 5.9% excluding gasoline prices and foreign exchange)
  • July 2017: Net sales up 8.8 percent year over year with comparable store sales up 6.2% (up 5.3% excluding gasoline prices and foreign exchange)
  • June 2017: Net sales up 7.0% year over year with comparable store sales up 6.0% (up 6.5% excluding gasoline prices and foreign exchange)

Looking at that data, we see Costco not only as a company that has continued to improve net sales month over month, but one that is hardly suffering the same fate as traditional brick & mortar retailers. Moreover, we would point out the company had 741 warehouses in operation during the August 2017 quarter, up from 715 a year ago. This led to a 13% increase in its high margin Membership Fee revenue, which accounted for nearly all of its net income during the quarter.

As we have said before, the power in Costco’s business model is the warehouses and membership fee income, and we see this continuing to be the case. As part of our Connected Society theme, we will continue to monitor consumer acceptance of delivered grocery. This includes Costco’s new two-day delivery services for both dry groceries and fresh foods that will be free for online orders exceeding $75 from 376 U.S. Costco stores. Unlike many brick & mortar retailers, Costco is not standing around and watching its competitors outflank it, rather it is responding. To us, this suggests the recent pullback is overdone.

  • We continue to have a Buy on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares, and our price target remains $190.

 

 

 

 

Shifting Consumer Preferences Favor Food with Integrity Bullets Not Restaurant Shares

Shifting Consumer Preferences Favor Food with Integrity Bullets Not Restaurant Shares

It’s no secret the restaurant industry is having a tough time given restaurant traffic data and less-than-flattering industry articles as it grapples with several consumer-centric issues. We received yet another indication of that restaurant pain last week when Sonic Corp. (SONC) reported a 7.4 percent decline in same-store-sales. The company’s management team chalked up the drop to “a sluggish consumer environment, weather headwinds and share losses…” amid a “very intense” competitive environment. Predictably, the company is retooling its menu offering and even though it’s late to the party, it is also jumping on the smartphone bandwagon.

Stepping back there is a larger issue that Sonic and other restaurants have to contend with – declining restaurant traffic that is due not only to lower prices at grocery stores but also to the shift in consumer preferences to healthier foods. That preference shift is toward natural and organic offerings as well as paleo, gluten-free and others and that’s one of the reason’s we’ve favored shares of United Natural Foods (UNFI) as grocers expand their offering to meet that demand.

Even as companies like Coca-Cola (KO) and PepsiCo (PEP) tinker with their carbonated soft drink formulas to reduce sugar, the new enemy, they have to do so without sacrificing taste. Some investors may remember the whole New Coke thing back in 1985 that was ultimately a failure given the different taste. As Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and even Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) look to reformulate to ride either the lower sugar or better-for-you shift, it bodes rather well for flavor companies like International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) or Sensient Tech (SXT).

That shifting preference has led several restaurant companies such as Panera Bread (PNRA) and Darden’s (DRI) Olive Garden to change up their menus in order to lure eaters. Over the last several years, Panera has been working to eliminate artificial additives in its food to make it “cleaner” for consumers and in 2015 it released a “no-no” list of more than 96 ingredients that it vowed to either remove from or never use in food. Darden is shifting to lighter fare recipes that have far fewer calories than prior ones. Even Chipotle (CMG), the one-time poster child for our Food with Integrity investing theme until its food safety woes last year, has come to fulfill its pledge of using no added colors, flavors or preservatives of any kind in any of its ingredients.

These are all confirming signs of our Food with Integrity investing theme that Lenore Hawkins and I talked about on last week’s podcast. Here too with these new menu offerings, it’s a question of how can restaurants offer healthier alternatives without sacrificing flavor? To us, the answer is found in  International Flavors & Fragrances, McCormick & Co. (MKC) and Sensient shares as well as other flavor companies.

Against that backdrop — – the shift to eating not only at home but eating food that is better for you – we have serious doubts when it comes to the quick service restaurant industry. According to the data research firm Sense360, which analyzed data from 140 chains and 5 million limited-service visits, 38% of heavy quick-service restaurant users reduced their visits in February, compared with the period before Christmas. Not exactly an inspiring reason to revisit shares of Sonic or several other QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) chains like McDonald’s  (MCD) or Wendy’s (WEN) at a time when bank card delinquency rates are climbing, subprime auto issues are doing the same, student debt levels loom over consumers and real wage growth has been meager at best.

While more people eating at home is a positive for Kroger (KR) and Wal-Mart (WMT), our “buy the bullets not the gun” approach continues to favor shares of McCormick and International Flavors & Fragrances in particular.  For those unfamiliar with “buy the bullets, not the gun” it’s a strategy that looks to capitalize on select industry suppliers that serve the majority of the industry with key components or other inputs. Shining examples of this strategy have included Intel (INTC), Qualcomm (QCOM) and recently acquired ARM Holdings. Common traits among them include a diverse customers base and strong competitive position with a leading market position for their products. The same holds true for both McCormick and International Flavors & Fragrances, which are also benefitting from our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class investing theme.

Shifting Consumer Preferences Favor Food with Integrity Bullets Not Restaurant Shares

Shifting Consumer Preferences Favor Food with Integrity Bullets Not Restaurant Shares

It’s no secret that the restaurant industry is having a tough time, given restaurant traffic data and less-than-flattering industry articles as it grapples with several consumer-centric issues. We received yet another indication of that restaurant pain last week when Sonic Corp. (SONC) reported a 7.4 percent decline in same-store-sales. The management team chalked up the drop to “a sluggish consumer environment, weather headwinds and share losses…” amid a “very intense” competitive environment. Predictably, the company is retooling its menu offering and even though it’s late to the party, it is also jumping on the smartphone bandwagon.

Stepping back there is a larger issue that Sonic and other restaurants have to contend with — declining restaurant traffic that is due not only to lower prices at grocery stores but also to the shift in consumer preferences to healthier foods. That preference shift is toward natural and organic offerings as well as paleo, gluten-free and others and that’s one of the reason’s we’ve favored shares of United Natural Foods (UNFI) as grocers expand their offering to meet that demand.

Even as companies like Coca-Cola (KO) and PepsiCo (PEP) tinker with their carbonated soft drink formulas to reduce sugar, the new enemy, they have to do so without sacrificing taste. Some investors may remember the whole New Coke experiment back in 1985, which was ultimately a failure given the different taste. As Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and even Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) look to reformulate to ride either the lower sugar or better-for-you shift, it bodes rather well for flavor companies like International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) or Sensient Tech (SXT).

That shifting preference has led several restaurant companies such as Panera (PNRA) and Darden’s (DRI) Olive Garden to change up their menus in order to lure eaters. Over the last several years, Panera has been working to eliminate artificial additives in its food to make it “cleaner” for consumers and in 2015 it released a “no-no” list of more than 96 ingredients that it vowed to either remove from or never use in food. Darden is shifting to lighter fare recipes that have far fewer calories than prior ones. Even Chipotle (CMG), the one-time poster child for our Food with Integrity investing theme until its food safety woes last year, has come to fulfill its pledge of using no added colors, flavors or preservatives of any kind in any of its ingredients.

These are all confirming signs of our Food with Integrity investing theme that Lenore Hawkins and I talked about on last week’s podcast. Here too, with these new menu offerings, it’s a question of how can restaurants offer healthier alternatives without sacrificing flavor? To us, the answer is found in International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), McCormick & Co. (MKC) and Sensient shares as well as other flavor companies.

Against that backdrop — the shift to eating not only at home but eating food that is better for you — we have serious doubts when it comes to the quick service restaurant industry. According to the data research firm Sense360, which analyzed data from 140 chains and 5 million limited-service visits, 38 percent of heavy quick-service restaurant users reduced their visits in February, compared with the period before Christmas. Not exactly an inspiring reason to revisit shares of Sonic or several other QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) chains like McDonald’s  (MCD) or Wendy’s (WEN) at a time when bank card delinquency rates are climbing, subprime auto issues are doing the same, student debt levels loom over consumers and real wage growth has been meager at best.

While more people eating at home is a positive for Kroger (KR) and Wal-Mart (WMT), our “buy the bullets not the gun” approach continues to favor shares of McCormick and International Flavors & Fragrances in particular.  For those unfamiliar with “buy the bullets, not the gun” it’s a strategy that looks to capitalize on select industry suppliers that serve the majority of the industry with key components or other inputs. Shining examples of this strategy in the tech industry have included Intel (INTC), Qualcomm (QCOM) and recently acquired ARM Holdings. Common traits among them include a diverse customers base and strong competitive position with a leading market position for their products.

The same holds true for both McCormick and International Flavors & Fragrances, which are also benefitting from our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class investing theme.

  • Our price target on MKC shares is $110; we’d be more inclined to scale into the shares closer to $95.
  • Our price target on IFF shares remains $145; as new data becomes available, we’ll continue to evaluate potential upside to that price target. 
Restaurant Surcharges Could Curb Diner Appetites and Make Already Weak Restaurant Traffic Even Worse

Restaurant Surcharges Could Curb Diner Appetites and Make Already Weak Restaurant Traffic Even Worse

Rising costs are an issue that nearly all companies must contend with. Some boost prices but run the risk of losing customers. Grappling with rising minimum wage costs, restaurants are starting to roll out a “labor surcharge”. Thus far it appears to be a percentage of the bill, not a flat fee, which is already starting to alienate some diners. While it may not effect the Emerging Ultra-Wealthy, odds are the Cash-Strapped Consumer and those in the falling aspect of our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class will either search out restaurants that have no such service charge, eat at home or perhaps get carry out.  If this labor surcharge becomes wider spread, the potential risk to be had is at companies like Darden Restaurants and perhaps Yelp, while those like Kroger and GrubHub are likely beneficiaries. From a bigger picture, this could help return dining out to the Affordable Luxury it once was.

Restaurants are taking a cue from the cable industry: Rather than raise menu prices to cover the higher cost of paying wages, some eateries are tacking on “labor surcharges.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that some restaurants in states where the minimum wage has recently increases have chosen to pass on the rising cost of labor to customers by way of 3% to 4% surcharges on their bills.

So far the surcharges have turned up at chains and local restaurants in California, Arizona, Colorado, and New York, the WSJ reports, with reps for the California Restaurant Association calling the added fees the “new norm” for the industry.

Source: Restaurants Adding Surcharge To Customers’ Bills Amid Rising Labor Costs – Consumerist