Special Alert – Our battle plan for the next few weeks

Special Alert – Our battle plan for the next few weeks

To say the last several days have been the roughest in recent memory is somewhat of an understatement. This is what happens when we have a wide swing in investor sentiment due to a confluence of concerns. We’ve talked about them over the last several weeks —  from signs of a slowing US economy to the impact of rising Treasury yields; growing signs of inflation that is questioning the Fed’s velocity of rate hikes, what that may mean for both consumer and corporate borrowings, and subsequent spending; more pain at the gas pump to what looks to be even more escalation in tariffs between the US and China, and Italy-Eurozone concerns – and they are coming home to roost just as we step into the meaty part of the September quarter earnings season.

The question that is likely crossing most investors’ mind is “What will all of this mean when companies issue their outlooks for the December quarter in the coming days and weeks?”

The concern that I’ve voiced is these factors — such as rising input costs and higher freight costs — are likely to lead companies to issue more cautious guidance than the market had been expecting, which called for more than 20% EPS growth year over year in the December quarter. As investors put pencil to paper (or these days, fingers to keys working Excel spreadsheets), they will be adjusting forecasts as comments on demand, input costs and interest costs are had.

We are seeing this weigh on stocks almost across the board, but especially on those like Facebook (FB), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX) and Alphabet (GOOGL), better known as the FANG stocks, and other high-flying growth stocks like them. Compounding matters is the fact that we are in the blackout period for stock buyback programs, which means companies are not able to step in and repurchase shares, which tends to add some support to stock prices. Also, not helping is the modest level of cash on the sidelines of institutional investors, which stood at 5.1% in September according to the most recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s monthly fund manager survey.

The sharp selloff of the last few days has stoked investor fears, marked by the CNN Money Fear & Greed Index hitting 8 (Extreme Fear) vs. 56 (Greed) a month ago. When we see such pronounced shifts to the negative with investor behavior more often than not we get a “shoot first, ask questions later.” Fun times, and yes that was sarcasm.

To sum up, we have a number of concerns hitting the market that is causing investors to question prior expectations at a time when backstops to falling share prices are limited. Odds are this is going to play out over at least the next several days as corporate earnings get hot and heavy, and the market trades on the next economic data point. Today we say the domestic stock market futures recover on a tame relative to expectations September CPI report, but yesterday’s September PPI report that once again showed core PPI prices were up 2.9% year over year fueled the Wednesday selloff.

 

What’s Our Thematic Strategy?

For now, our strategy will be to sit on the sidelines building our shopping list and listening to a wide swath of corporate earnings as well as new thematic data points to update our investing mosaic as we wait for less turbulent waters. This also means looking for opportunistic price points to improve our positions on both the Thematic Leaders as well as the Select List. I’ll continue to focus on those companies that are riding the might of thematic tailwinds, asking questions like “Where will the company’s business be in 12-18 months as these tailwinds and its own maneuverings play out?”

A great example is Amazon (AMZN), which as you know continues to benefit from the Digital Lifestyle investment theme primarily and the shift to digital shopping, as well as cloud adoption, which is part of our Digital Infrastructure theme. And before too long, Amazon will own online pharmacy PillPack and become a key player in our Aging of the Population theme. Amid the market selloff, however, the company continues to improve its thematic position. First, a home insurance partnership with insurance company Travelers (TRV) should help spur sales of Amazon Echo speakers and security devices. This follows a similar partnering with ADT (ADT), and both arrangements mean Amazon is indeed focused on improving its position in our Safety & Security investing theme. Second, Bloomberg is reporting that Amazon Web Services has inked a total of $1 billion in new cloud deals with SAP (SAP) and Symantec (SYMC). That’s a hefty shot in the arm for the Amazon business that is a central part of our Digital Infrastructure theme and is one that delivered revenue of $6.1 billion and roughly half of the Amazon’s overall profits in the June 2018 quarter.

At almost the same time, Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) announced it has dropped out of the bidding for the $10 billion cloud computing contract with the Department of Defense. Google cited concerns over the use of Artificial Intelligence as well as certain aspects of the contract being out of the scope of its current government certifications. This move likely cements the view that Amazon Web Services is the front-runner for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud (JEDI), but we can’t rule our Microsoft or others as yet. I’ll continue to monitor these developments in the coming days and weeks, but winning that contract would mean Wall Street will have to adjust its expectations for one of Amazon’s most profitable businesses higher.

Those are a number of positives for Amazon that will play out not in the next few days but in the coming 12-18+ months. It’s those kinds of signals that I’ll be focused on even more so in the coming days and weeks.

Tomorrow we will see several banks report their September quarter results, and they will offer ample insight into not only the economy and demand for capital but default rates and other warning indicators. Odds are they will also share their views on interest rates and prospects for forthcoming action by the Fed. As I digest those insights, I’ll also be reading Tematica Research’s ® Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins’ latest global macro thoughts and market insights. If I think it’s a must read, my suggestion is you should be reading it as well. Also, on this week’s podcast, which will be published shortly, Lenore and I talk about all of this so if you’re looking for a more in-depth discussion and a few laughs along the way, I’d recommend you check it out.

 

Weekly Issue: Adding Two Calls Ahead of the Holiday Season

Weekly Issue: Adding Two Calls Ahead of the Holiday Season

Key points in this issue

 

The NRF issues its 2018 holiday spend forecast,
and we add 2 new call positions

Yesterday, the National Retail Federation published its 2018 holiday retail sales forecast, which covers the November and December time frame and excludes automobiles, gasoline, and restaurants sales. On that basis, the NRF expects an increase between 4.3%-$4.8% over 2017 for a total of $717.45- $720.89 billion. I’d note that while the NRF tried to put a sunny outlook on that forecast by saying it compares to “an average annual increase of 3.9% over the past five years” what it did not say is its 2018 forecast calls for slower growth compared to last year’s holiday shopping increase of 5.3%.

That could be some conservatism on their part or it could reflect their concerns over gas prices and other aspects of inflation as well as higher interest costs vs. a year ago that could sap consumer buying power this holiday season. Last October the NRF expected 2017 holiday sales to grow 3.6%-4.0% year over year, well short of the 5.3% gain that was recorded so it is possible they are once again underestimating the extent to which consumers will open their wallets this holiday season. While I am bullish, we can’t rule out there are consumer-facing headwinds on the rise, and that is likely to accelerate the shift to digital shopping this holiday season, especially as more retailers prime the digital sales pump.

On its own Amazon would be a natural beneficiary of the seasonal pick up in shopping, but as I’ve shared before it has been not so quietly growing its private label businesses and staking out its place in the fashion and apparel industry. These moves as well as Amazon’s ability to competitively price product, plus the myriad way it makes money off its listed products and the companies behind them, mean we are entering into what should be a very profitable time of year for Amazon and its shareholders.

We already own the shares in Tematica Investing, but for some extra oomph here at Options+ I’m adding the Amazon (AMZN) Feb 2019 2000.00 (AMZN190215C02000000) calls that closed last night at 146.30. That strike price will capture the company’s December 2018 quarter earnings report as well as the post-holiday shopping that tends to happen each and every year.

As we move through the soon to be upon us September quarter earnings season, I’ll be assessing and collecting other retail outlooks for this holiday shopping season. Given the timing for this option position, I’m going to set a wider than usual stop loss at 100.00, and as the calls move higher, I’ll look to tighten it up.

 

I’ve long said that United Parcel Service (UPS) shares are a natural beneficiary of the shift to digital shopping. With a seasonal pickup once again expected that has more companies offering digital shopping and more consumers shopping that way, odds are package volumes will once again outpace overall holiday shopping growth year over year. From a financial perspective, that means a disproportionate share of revenue and earnings are to be had at UPS, and from an investor’s perspective, that means multiple expansion is likely to be had. Therefore, as we add those Amazon calls to our holdings, we will also do the same with UPS as follows:

 

As warnings flares are had, we’re sticking with our S&P 500 inverse calls

This week we received some favorable September economic news in the form of the ADP Employment Report as well as the ISM Services Index with both crushing expectations. Despite these reports, has barely budged this week, which suggests to me investors are expecting a sloppy September quarter earnings season for the market. No doubt there will be some bright spots, but in aggregate we are seeing a number of headwinds compared to this time last year that could weigh on corporate outlooks.

Already we’ve had a number of companies issuing softer than expected outlooks due to rising input costs, trade and tariffs, the slower speed of the economy compared to the June quarter, and concerns over higher gas prices and the impact on consumers. A great example of that was had yesterday when shares of lighting and building management company Acuity Brands (AYI) fell more than 13% after it reported fiscal fourth-quarter profit that beat expectations, but margins fell amid a sharp rise in input costs. The company said costs were “well higher” for items such as electronic components, freight, wages, and certain commodity-related items, such as steel, due to “several economic factors, including previously announced and enacted tariffs and wage inflation due to the tight labor market…”

Acuity is not the first company to report this and odds are it will not be the last one as September quarter earnings begins to heat up next week. As the velocity of reports picks up, we could be in for a bumpy ride as investors reset their growth and profit expectations for the December quarter and 2019. Therefore, we will continue to hold over inverse S&P 500 calls, which thus far are little changed from where we added them last week.

 

Checking in on our Universal Display calls

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a growing reception for Apple’s (AAPL) new iPhone models, both of which utilize the organic light emitting diode display technology that is made possible by Universal Display’s chemical and intellectual property business. We’ve also started to see adoption outside of Apple with other smartphone companies and in other markets as well (TVs, automotive lighting), which confirms to me adoption rates are on the upswing. This bodes very well for Universal’s business in the second half of 2018 and beyond as well as our January 2019 calls.

The next known catalyst for OLED shares and these calls is November 1, when Apple will report its September quarter results. I’ll be on the lookout for additional signs of OLED adoption between now and then, but for now let’s stick with our OLED calls.

 

 

A Middle-class Squeeze recipe: Flat real wage growth with prices poised to move higher

A Middle-class Squeeze recipe: Flat real wage growth with prices poised to move higher

We’ve been witnessing inflationary pressures in the monthly economic data over the last several months. Some of this has been higher raw material due in part to trade tariffs and other input costs, such as climbing freight costs, as well as the impact of increased minimum wages in certain states. Habit Restaurant (HABT) noticeably called out the impact of wage gains as one of the primary drivers in its recent menu price increase.

This June 2018 earnings season, we’ve heard from a growing number of companies – from materials and food to semiconductor and restaurants –  that contending with inflationary pressures are looking to pass it through to consumers in the form of higher prices as best they can. The thing is, wage growth has been elusive for the vast majority of workers, especially on an inflation-adjusted basis. Keep in mind that is before we factor in the inflationary effect to be had if these escalating rounds of trade tariffs are in effect longer than expected.

As these price increases take hold and interest rates creep higher, it means consumer spending dollars will not stretch as far as they did previously.  Not good for consumers and not good for the economy but it offers support for the Fed to boost rates in the coming quarters and keeps our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme in vogue.

 

U.S. average hourly earnings adjusted for inflation fell 0.2 percent in July from a year earlier, data released on Friday showed, notching the lowest reading since 2012. While inflation isn’t high in historical terms, after years of being too low following the 2007-2009 recession, its recent gains are taking a bigger bite out of U.S. paychecks.

“Inflation has been climbing and wage growth, meanwhile, has been flat as a pancake,” said Laura Rosner, senior economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives LLC in New York. “In a very tight labor market you would expect that workers would negotiate their wages to at least keep up with the cost of living, and the picture tells you that they’re not.”

Source: American Workers Just Got a Pay Cut in Economy Trump Calls Great – Bloomberg

Silver Screen

Coming soon to theaters: higher prices. Movie theater operator Cinemark Holdings Inc. plans to pass costs along to customers, partly due to seating upgrades.

“Our average ticket price also increased 3.7 percent to $8.08, largely as a result of inflation, incremental pricing opportunities associated with recliner conversions, and favorable adult-versus-child ticket type mix,” said Chief Financial Officer Sean Gamble. “As we’ve continued to roll out recliners, our general tactic has been to go forward with limited pricing upfront and then when we see the demand opportunity increase there, and I’d say there’s still — we still believe there is further opportunity as we look to the back half of this year and forward in that regard.”

To be fair, movie ticket prices have been marching steadily higher in recent years. But theaters aren’t the only ones planning to pass on costs.

Sugar Boost

The maker of Twinkies and Ding Dongs wants to charge more for its sugary snacks.

“We will implement a retail price increase and incremental retailer programs to help offset the inflationary headwinds we and others in the industry are experiencing,” Hostess Brands Inc. Chief Executive Officer Andrew Callahan said on a call, explaining that the company is researching how to do so without choking off growth. The majority of the change will come in 2019, he said.

Bubble Wrap

Sealed Air Corp., the maker of Bubble Wrap and other packaging materials, is trying “to do everything we can operationally to keep our freight costs low,” Chief Financial Officer William Stiehl said in apresentation. “Where I’ve been very happy with the company’s success is our ability to pass along price increases to our customers for our relevant input cost.”

Steel Prices

Tariffs are hitting home at Otter Tail Corp.’s metal fabrication unit BTD, but leadership doesn’t sound especially concerned. Thank pricing power.

“We do not anticipate higher steel prices from tariffs having a significant impact on BTD’s margins as steel costs are largely passed through to customers,” Chief Executive Officer Charles MacFarlane said on a call. “BTD is working to enhance productivity in a period of increased volume and tight labor markets.”

Tariff Tag

The trade impact pass-through is equally real at semiconductor device maker Diodes Inc.

“Products that we import into the U.S. from China, all of those products are going to be ultimately affected by the tariffs,” Chief Financial Officer Richard White said on a call. Between U.S. levies that began July 6 and additional rounds planned to follow, “it’s about $3.6 million per quarter, but we plan to pass these tariff charges on to our customers.”

Home Costs

Housing developer LGI Homes Inc. is “consistently” seeing sales price increases as costs bump higher — a sign that pricing power exists even in big-ticket markets like housing.

“We’re able to and need to raise our prices to keep our gross margins consistent,” Chairman Eric Lipar said on a call. “In the market that we’re in, which I’d characterize as a good, solid, strong demand market with a tight supply of houses and the labor challenges, the material challenges that we all face, we see at least for the next couple quarters, that trend continuing. Prices are going to have to increase on a same-store basis if you will in order to offset increased costs.”

“We’re dealing with a higher monthly payment for the buyer now because of the rising interest rates from nine months ago. Demand seems to be there,” he said, adding that the company may need to examine ways to address the situation. “Rather than reducing the price, we may have to look at smaller square footages. The buyer may have to choose.”

People Problems

Not everyone is finding opportunities to pass along costs: Civitas Solutions Inc., a health and human services provider that caters to those with disabilities and youth with behavioral or medical challenges, is seeing slimmer margins.

“The number of people that are exiting the company are still a concern to us and I think it’s driven largely by the full, robust economy,” Chairman Bruce Nardella said on a call, citing workers seeing opportunities to leave to get higher wages. “Over the last two years, our margins have eroded because of that labor pressure.”

Pizza Pain

As if a leadership feud and sales slump weren’t problematic enough, pizza chain Papa John’s International Inc. also has to deal with wage pressures and rising costs. It’s responding by attempting to eke out efficiency gains, rather than by raising prices, to defend its margins.

“We have employed third party efficiency experts to review the potential for improvements within our restaurants,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Ritchie said on a call. “They are also conducting time and motion studies. Their work will directly supplement the work we are doing within our restaurant design of the future.”

Addressing Pressures

As some companies maintain profits by pushing costs to customers, Flowers Foods Inc., the maker of Tastykake pastries and Mi Casa tortillas, is finding work-arounds. It increased prices in the first quarter to help offset input inflation, but has also eaten some of the cost.

“Our margins were impacted by inflationary pressures from higher transportation cost, a tight labor market, and increasingly volatile commodity markets,” Chief Executive Officer Allen Shiver said on a call. “To address these inflationary pressures, we are aggressively working to capture greater efficiencies and cost reductions.”

 

Source: Inflation Is Coming to Theater Near You as U.S. Companies Flex Pricing Power – Bloomberg