Microsoft talks about privacy and transparency for Edge

Microsoft talks about privacy and transparency for Edge

Compared to several years ago, there are a number of internet browsers one can use on desktop, laptop, smartphone or a tablet to surf the web and do all of the digital things associated with Tematica’s Digital Lifestyle investing theme. While the more commone ones are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome, and Apple’s Safari, there have been functionality, compatibility as well as privacy concerns with those products. In fact, in a bid to protect our privacy and block data-grabbing ads and trackers, members of Team Tematica prefer to use Brave, Firefox and DuckDuckGo as well as NordVPN, Norton VPN and Cloudflare. Given all of that it, as well as Apple talking up how it values the privacy of its customers, it comes as little surprise that Microsoft would discuss its improved privacy with Edge, its new internet browser. Now to see what Google does…

Our browser privacy promise is to provide you with the protection, transparency, control and respect you deserve. To uphold commitments to give you transparency into Microsoft products, the Microsoft Edge team provided a privacy whitepaper that explains how Microsoft Edge features and services work and how each may affect your privacy. The goal of the Microsoft Edge team is to give you a full understanding into how your data is used, how to control the different features, and how to manage your collected data, so you have the info you need to make the right privacy decisions for you.

Source: Microsoft Edge Privacy Whitepaper – Microsoft Edge Development | Microsoft Docs

Weekly Issue: Key Developments at Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T)

Weekly Issue: Key Developments at Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T)

Key points inside this issue:

  •  Apple’s 2019 iPhone event – more meh than wow
  •  GameStop – It’s only going to get worse
  •  Elliot Management gets active in AT&T, but its prefers Verizon?
  •  California approves a bill that changes how contract workers are treated
  • Volkswagen set to disrupt the electric vehicle market

I’m going to deviate from the usual format we’ve been using here at Tematica Investing this week to focus on some of what’s happening with Select List residents Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T) this week as well as one or two other things. The reason is the developments at both companies have a few layers to them, and I wanted to take the space to discuss them in greater detail. Don’t worry, we’ll be back to our standard format next week and I should be sharing some thoughts on Farfetch (FTCH), which sits at the crossroads of our Living the Life, Middle Class Squeeze and Digital Lifestyle investing themes, and another company I’ve been scrutinizing with our thematic lens. 

 

Apple’s 2019 iPhone event – more meh than wow

Yesterday, Apple (AAPL) held its now annual iPhone-centric event, at which it unveiled its newest smartphone model as well as other “new”, or more to the point, upgraded hardware. In that regard, Apple did not disappoint, but the bottom line is the company delivered on expectations serving up new models of the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad, but with only incremental technical advancements. 

Was there anything that is likely to make the average users, not the early adopter, upgrade today because they simply have to “have it”? 

Not in my view. 

What Apple did do with these latest devices and price cuts on older models that it will keep in play was round out price points in its active device portfolio. To me, that says CEO Tim Cook and his team got the message following the introduction of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max last year, each of which sported price tags of over $1,000. This year, a consumer can scoop up an iPhone 8 for as low as $499 or pay more than $1,000 for the new iPhone 11 Pro that sports a new camera system and some other incremental whizbangs. The same goes with Apple Watch – while Apple debuted a new Series 5 model yesterday, it is keeping the Series 3 in the lineup and dropped its price point to $199. That has the potential to wreak havoc on fitness trackers and other smartwatch businesses at companies like Garmin (GRMN) and Fitbit (FIT)

Before moving on, I will point out the expanded product price points could make judging Apple’s product mix revenue from quarter to quarter more of a challenge, especially since Apple is now sharing information on these devices in a more limited fashion. This could mean Apple has a greater chance of surprising on revenue, both to the upside as well as the downside. Despite Apple’s progress in growing its Services business, as well its other non-iPhone businesses, iPhone still accounted for 48% of June 2019 quarterly revenue. 

Those weren’t the only two companies to feel the pinch of the Apple event. Another was Netflix (NFLX) as Apple joined Select List resident Walt Disney (DIS) in undercutting Netflix’s monthly subscription rate. In case you missed it, Disney’s starter package for its video streaming service came in at $6.99 per month. Apple undercut that with a $4.99 a month price point for its forthcoming AppleTV+ service, plus one year free with a new device purchase. To be fair, out of the gate Apple’s content library will be rather thin in comparison to Disney and Netflix, but it does have the balance sheet to grow its library in the coming quarters. 

Apple also announced that its game subscription service, Apple Arcade, will launch on September 19 with a $4.99 per month price point. Others, such as Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL) are targeting game subscription services as well, but with Apple’s install base of devices and the adoption of mobile gaming, Apple Arcade could surprise to the upside. 

To me, the combination of Apple Arcade and these other game services are another nail in the coffin for GameStop (GME)

 

GameStop – It’s only going to get worse

I’ve been bearish on GameStop (GME) for some time, but even I didn’t think it could get this ugly, this fast. After the close last night, GameStop reported its latest quarter results that saw EPS miss expectations by $0.10 per share, a miss on revenues, guidance on its outlook below consensus, and a cut to its same-store comps guidance. The company also shared the core tenets of a new strategic plan. 

Nearly all of its speaks for itself except for the strategic plan. Those key tenets are:

  • Optimize the core business by improving efficiency and effectiveness across the organization, including cost restructuring, inventory management optimization, adding and growing high margin product categories, and rationalizing the global store base. 
  • Create the social and cultural hub of gaming across the GameStop platform by testing and improving existing core assets including the store experience, knowledgeable associates and the PowerUp Rewards loyalty program. 
  • Build digital capabilities, including the recent relaunch of GameStop.com.
  •  Transform vendor and partner relationships to unlock additional high-margin revenue streams and optimize the lifetime value of every customer.

Granted, this is a cursory review, but based on what I’ve seen I am utterly unconvinced that GameStop can turn this boat around. The company faces headwinds associated with our Digital Lifestyle investing theme that are only going to grow stronger as gaming services from Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet come to market and offer the ability to game anywhere, anytime. To me, it’s very much like the slow sinking ship that was Barnes & Noble (BKS) that tried several different strategies to bail water out. 

Did GameStop have its time in the sun? Sure it did, but so did Blockbuster Video and we all know how that ended. Odds are it will be Game Over for GameStop before too long.

Getting back to Apple, now we wait for September 20 when all the new iPhone models begin shipping. Wall Street get your spreadsheets ready!

 

Elliot Management gets active in AT&T, but its prefers Verizon?

Earlier this week, we learned that activist investor Elliot Management Corp. took a position in AT&T (T). At $3.2 billion, we can safely say it is a large position. Following that investment, Elliot sent a 24-page letter telling AT&T that it needed to change to bolster its share price. Elliot’s price target for T shares? $60. I’ll come back to that in a bit. 

Soon thereafter, many media outlets from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal ran articles covering that 24-page letter, which at one point suggested AT&T be more like Verizon (VZ) and focus on building out its 5G network and cut costs. While I agree with Elliot that those should be focus points for AT&T, and that AT&T should benefit from its spectrum holdings as well as being the provider of the federally backed FirstNet communications system for emergency responders, I disagree with its criticism of the company’s media play. 

Plain and simple, people vote with their feet for quality content. We’ve seen this at the movie box office, TV ratings, and at streaming services like Netflix (NFLX) when it debuted House of Cards or Stranger Things, and Hulu with the Handmaiden’s Tale. I’ve long since argued that AT&T has taken a page out of others’ playbook and sought to surround its mobile business with content, and yes that mobile business is increasingly the platform of choice for consuming streaming video content. By effectively forming a proprietary content moat around its business, the company can shore up its competitive position and expand its business offering rather than having its mobile service compete largely on price. And this isn’t a new strategy – we saw Comcast (CMCSA) do it rather well when it swallowed NBC Universal to take on Walt Disney and others. 

Let’s also remember that following the acquisiton of Time Warner, AT&T is poised to follow Walt Disney, Apple and others into the streaming video service market next year. Unlike Apple, AT&T’s Warner Media brings a rich and growing content library but similar to Apple, AT&T has an existing service to which it can bundle its streaming service. AT&T may be arriving later to the party than Apple and Disney, but its effort should not be underestimated, nor should the impact of that business on how investors will come to think about valuing T shares. The recent valuation shift in Disney thanks to Disney+ is a great example and odds are we will see something similar at Apple before too long with Apple Arcade and AppleTV+. These changes will help inform us as to how that AT&T re-think could play out as it comes to straddle the line between being a Digital Infrastructure and Digital Lifestyle company.

Yes Verizon may have a leg up on AT&T when it comes to the current state of its 5G network, but as we heard from specialty contractor Dycom Industries (DY), it is seeing a significant uptick in 5G related construction and its top two customers are AT& T (23% of first half 2019 revenue) followed by Verizon (22%). But when these two companies along with Sprint (S), T-Mobile USA (TMUS) and other players have their 5G network buildout competed, how will Verizon ward off subscriber poachers that are offering compelling monthly rates? 

And for what it’s worth, I’m sure Elliot Management is loving the current dividend yield had with T shares. Granted its $60 price target implies a yield more like 3.4%, but I’d be happy to get that yield if it means a 60% pop in T shares. 

 

California approves a bill that changes how contract workers are treated

California has long been a trend setter, but if you’re an investor in Uber (UBER) or Lyft (LYFT) — two companies riding our Disruptive Innovators theme — that latest bout of trend setting could become a problem. Yesterday, California lawmakers have approved Assembly Bill 5, a bill that requires companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to treat contract workers as employees. 

This is one of those times that our thematic lens is being tilted a tad to focus on a regulatory change that will entitle gig workers to protections like a minimum wage and unemployment benefits, which will drive costs at the companies higher. It’s being estimated that on-demand companies like Uber and the delivery service DoorDash will see their costs rise 20%-30% when they rely on employees rather than contractors. For Uber and Lyft, that likely means pushing out their respective timetables to profitability.

We’ll have to see if other states follow California’s lead and adopt a similar change. A coalition of labor groups is pushing similar legislation in New York, and bills in Washington State and Oregon could see renewed momentum. The more states that do, the larger the profit revisions to the downside to be had. 

 

Volkswagen set to disrupt the electric vehicle market

It was recently reported that Volkswagen (VWAGY) has hit a new milestone in reducing battery costs for its electric vehicles, as it now pays less than $100 per KWh for its batteries. Given the battery pack is the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, this has been thought to be a tipping point for mass adoption of electric vehicles. 

Soon after that report, Volkswagen rolled out the final version of its first affordable long-range electric car, the ID.3, at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show and is expected to be available in mid-2020.  By affordable, Volkswagen means “under €30,000” (about $33,180, currently) and the ID.3 will come in three variants that offer between roughly 205 and 340 miles of range. 

By all accounts, the ID.3 will be a vehicle to watch as it is the first one being built on the company’s new modular all-electric platform that is expected to be the basis for dozens more cars and SUVs in the coming years as Volkswagen Group’s pushed hard into electric vehicles. 

Many, including myself, have been waiting for the competitive landscape in the electric vehicle market to heat up considerably – it’s no secret that all the major auto OEMs are targeting the market. Between this fall in battery cost and the price point for Volkswagen’s ID.3, it appears that the change in the landscape is finally approaching and it’s likely to bring more competitive pressures for Clean Living company and Cleaner  Living Index constituent Tesla (TSLA)

 

A live concert in Fortnite shows why Netflix is right to be worried

A live concert in Fortnite shows why Netflix is right to be worried

We recently published a Thematic Signal in which we discussed the comment from Netflix management why it isn’t so worried about HBO, but rather Fortnite. If there was any doubt it was put to rest in the form a recent live concert held inside Fortnite that drew “25 times as many people that attended Woodstock in 1969.”

According to reports, that four-day music event that spanned August 15-18, 1969 in the Catskill Mountains attracted more than 400,000 people. Some simple math suggests the live concert in Fortnite attracted roughly 10 million people.

10 million!

Watching a concert inside a game!

What were those 10 million people not doing?

Watching Netflix, HBO, Hulu or another streaming video service.

Yes, Netflix is right to be worried over competitive streaming services that take eyeballs away from its content.

This makes the much-rumored streaming gaming services from Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft even more interesting as it could alter the Digital LIfestyle market shares and make for an even more challenging landscape for the existing video streaming services as well as those that are forthcoming from Disney, NBC, and Apple.

 

The wildly popular video game “Fortnite” made history yesterday with a live show by EDM artist Marshmello that reportedly drew millions of viewers — which, for context, would be 25 times as many people as attended Woodstock in 1969.

“It truly felt like a glimpse into the future of interactive entertainment,” wrote Nick Statt for The Verge, “where the worlds of gaming, music, and celebrity combined to create a virtual experience we’ve never quite seen before.

Source: Live Concert Inside “Fortnite” Drew More Viewers Than Woodstock

Weekly Issue: Verizon is bulls up on 5G, paving the way for a Disruptive Innovator Leader position

Weekly Issue: Verizon is bulls up on 5G, paving the way for a Disruptive Innovator Leader position

Key points in this issue:

  • As expected, more negative earnings revisions roll in
  • Verizon says “We’re heading into the 5G era”
  • Nokia gets several boosts ahead of its earnings report
  • USA Technologies gets an “interim” CFO
  • We are issuing a Buy on and adding the Nokia Corp. (NOK) April 2019 call options (NOK190208C00006500) that closed last night at 0.30 with a stop loss of 0.15 to our options playbook this week.
  • Treading carefully after stopping out of our Del Frisco’s call option

 

As expected, more negative earnings revisions roll in

In full, last week was one in which the domestic stock market indices were largely unchanged and we saw that reflected in many of our Thematic Leaders. Late Friday, a deal was reached to potentially only temporarily reopen the federal government should Congress fail to reach a deal on immigration. Given the subsequent bluster that we’ve seen from President Trump, it’s likely this deal could go either way. Perhaps, we’ll hear more on this during his next address, scheduled ahead of this weekend’s Super Bowl.

Yesterday, the Fed began its latest monetary policy meeting. It’s not expected to boost interest rates, but Fed watchers will be looking to see if there is any change to its plan to unwind its balance sheet. As the Fed’s meeting winds down, the next phase of US-China trade talks will be underway.

Last week I talked about the downward revisions to earnings expectations for the S&P 500 and warned that we were likely to see more of the same. So far this week, a number of high-profile earnings reports from the likes of Caterpillar (CAT), Whirlpool (WHR), Crane Co. (CR), AK Steel (AKS), 3M (MMM) and Pfizer (PFE) have revealed December-quarter misses and guidance for the near-term below consensus expectations. More of that same downward earnings pressure for the S&P 500 indeed. And yes, those misses and revisions reflect issues we have been discussing the last several months that are still playing out. At least for now, there doesn’t appear to be any significant reversal of those factors, which likely means those negative revisions are poised to continue over the next few weeks.

 

Tematica Investing

With the market essentially treading water over the last several days, so too did the Thematic Leaders.  Apple’s (AAPL) highly anticipated earnings report last night edged out consensus EPS expectations with guidance that was essentially in line. To be clear, the only reason the company’s EPS beat expectations was because of its lower tax rate year over year and the impact of its share buyback program. If we look at its operating profit year over year — our preferred metric here at Tematica — we find profits were down 11% year over year.

With today’s issue already running on the long side, we’ll dig deeper into that Apple report in a stand-alone post on TematicaResearch.com later today or tomorrow, but suffice it to say the market greeted the news from Apple with some relief that it wasn’t worse. That will drive the market higher today, but let’s remember we have several hundred companies yet to report and those along with the Fed’s comments later today and US-China trade comments later this week will determine where the stock market will go in the near-term.

As we wait for that sense of direction, I’ll continue to roll up my sleeves to fill the Guilty Pleasure void we have on the Thematic Leaders since we kicked Altria to the curb last week. Stay tuned!

 

Verizon says “We’re heading into the 5G era”

Yesterday and early this morning, both Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T) reported their respective December quarter results and shared their outlook. Tucked inside those comments, there was a multitude of 5G related mentions, which perked our thematic ears up as it relates to our Disruptive Innovators investing theme.

As Verizon succinctly said, “…we’re heading to the 5G era and the beginning of what many see as the fourth industrial revolution.” No wonder it mentioned 5G 42 times during its earnings call yesterday and shared the majority of its $17-$18 billion in capital spending over the coming year will be spent on 5G. Verizon did stop short of sharing exactly when it would roll out its commercial 5G network, but did close out the earnings conference call with “…We’re going to see much more of 5G commercial, both mobility, and home during 2019.”

While we wait for AT&T’s 5G-related comments on its upcoming earnings conference call, odds are we will hear it spout favorably about 5G as well. Historically other mobile carriers have piled on once one has blazed the trail on technology, services or price. I strongly suspect 5G will fall into that camp as well, which means in the coming months we will begin to hear much more on the disruptive nature of 5G.

 

Nokia gets several boosts ahead of its earnings report

Friday morning one of Disruptive Innovator Leader Nokia’s (NOK) mobile network infrastructure competitors, Ericsson (ERIC), reported its December-quarter results. ERIC shares are trading up following the report, which showed the company’s revenue grew by 10% year over year due primarily to growth at its core Networks business. That strength was largely due to 5G activity in the North American market as mobile operators such as AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and others prepare to launch their 5G commercial networks later this year. And for anyone wondering how important 5G is to Ericsson, it was mentioned 26 times in the company’s earnings press release.

In short, I see Ericsson’s earnings report as extremely positive and confirming for our Nokia and 5G investment thesis.

One other item to mention is the growing consideration for the continued banning of Huawei mobile infrastructure equipment by countries around the world. Currently, those products and services are excluded in the U.S., but the U.K. and other countries in Europe are voicing concerns over Huawei as they look to confirm their national telecommunications infrastructure is secure.

Last week, one of the world’s largest mobile carriers, Vodafone (VOD) announced it would halt buying Huawei gear. BT Group, the British telecom giant, has plans to rip out part of Huawei’s existing network. Last year, Australia banned the use of equipment from Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese supplier of mobile infrastructure and smartphones.

In Monday’s New York Times, there was an article that speaks to the coming deployment of 5G networks both in the U.S. and around the globe, comparing the changes they will bring. Quoting Chris Lane, a telecom analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong it says:

“This will be almost more important than electricity… Everything will be connected, and the central nervous system of these smart cities will be your 5G network.”

That sentiment certainly underscores why 5G technology is housed inside our Disruptive Innovators investing theme. One of the growing concerns following the arrest of two Huawei employees for espionage in Poland is cybersecurity. As the New York Times article points out:

“American and British officials had already grown concerned about Huawei’s abilities after cybersecurity experts, combing through the company’s source code to look for back doors, determined that Huawei could remotely access and control some networks from the company’s Shenzhen headquarters.”

From our perspective, this raises many questions when it comes to Huawei. As companies look to bring 5G networks to market, they are not inclined to wait for answers when other suppliers of 5G equipment stand at the ready, including Nokia.

Nokia will report its quarterly results this Thursday (Jan. 31) and as I write this, consensus expectations call for EPS of $0.14 on revenue of $7.6 billion. Given Ericsson’s quarterly results, I expect an upbeat report. Should that not come to pass, I’m inclined to be patient and hold the shares for some time as commercial 5G networks launches make their way around the globe. If the shares were to fall below our blended buy-in price of $5.55, I’d be inclined to once again scale into them.

  • Our long-term price target for NOK shares remains $8.50.

 

USA Technologies gets an “interim” CFO

Earlier this week, Digital Lifestyle company USA Technologies (USAT) announced it has appointed interim Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Glen Goold. According to LinkedIn, among Goold’s experience, he was CFO at private company Sutron Corp. from Nov 2012 to Feb 2018, an Associate Vice President at Carlyle Group from July 2005 to February 2012, and a Tax Manager at Ernst & Young between 1997-2005. We would say he has the background to be a solid CFO and should be able to clean up the accounting mess that was uncovered at USAT several months ago.

That said, we are intrigued by the “interim” aspect of Mr. Goold’s title — and to be frank, his lack of public company CFO experience. We suspect the “interim” title could fuel speculation that the company is cleaning itself up to be sold, something we touched on last week. As I have said before, we focus on fundamentals, not takeout speculation, but if a deal were to emerge, particularly at a favorable share price, we aren’t ones to fight it.

  • Our price target on USA Technologies (USAT) shares remains $10.

 

Tematica Options+

The positive developments associated with Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia outlined above strongly suggest the company will deliver an upbeat December quarter earnings report, and will likely guide at least if line, if not higher, for 2019 given the accelerating 5G deployments and improving competitive landscape. That’s why we are adding the Nokia Corp. (NOK) April 2019 call options (NOK190208C00006500) that closed last night at 0.30 to our options playbook this week.

Not only does the timing on these calls capture this Thursday’s earnings report, but it also includes the next major mobile industry conference, the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC) that will be held in Barcelona from Feb. 25-28. Historically, during times of new mobile technology rollouts, MWC has been a hotbed of announcements. As we stand on the cusp of commercial 5G network deployments, odds are high that history will once again repeat itself.

While signs are bullish for 5G and Nokia, we as investors will want to limit our downside, which is why I’m setting a stop loss at 0.15 for this position.

 

Treading carefully after stopping out of our Del Frisco’s call option

On the housekeeping front, last night we were stopped out of our Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group call option. With the company evaluating its strategic options, we’ll carefully look to revisit a call option position in this company. This extra sense of caution follows the 20+% drop in GameStop (GME) shares following its Board’s decision to forego being taken private by private equity investors and remain both public and independent.

I would note that GameStop is hitting the headwind of our Digital Lifestyle theme as gamers increasingly shed physical formats over downloading games to their devices and consoles. As if that weren’t enough, I’m hearing reports that Apple, Google (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN) and Microsoft (MSFT) are eyeing a streaming game service similar to what Thematic Leader Netflix (NFLX) has done for TV and movie content. I see this as another potential nail in the GameStop coffin, which means GME shares are one to avoid… at least in a long position.

 

 

Weekly Issue: As earnings season continues, the market catches a positive breather

Weekly Issue: As earnings season continues, the market catches a positive breather

Key points in this issue:

  • As expected, more negative earnings revisions roll in
  • Verizon says “We’re heading into the 5G era”
  • Nokia gets several boosts ahead of its earnings report
  • USA Technologies gets an “interim” CFO

 

As expected, more negative earnings revisions roll in

In full, last week was one in which the domestic stock market indices were largely unchanged and we saw that reflected in many of our Thematic Leaders. Late Friday, a deal was reached to potentially only temporarily reopen the federal government should Congress fail to reach a deal on immigration. Given the subsequent bluster that we’ve seen from President Trump, it’s likely this deal could go either way. Perhaps, we’ll hear more on this during his next address, scheduled ahead of this weekend’s Super Bowl.

Yesterday, the Fed began its latest monetary policy meeting. It’s not expected to boost interest rates, but Fed watchers will be looking to see if there is any change to its plan to unwind its balance sheet. As the Fed’s meeting winds down, the next phase of US-China trade talks will be underway.

Last week I talked about the downward revisions to earnings expectations for the S&P 500 and warned that we were likely to see more of the same. So far this week, a number of high-profile earnings reports from the likes of Caterpillar (CAT), Whirlpool (WHR), Crane Co. (CR), AK Steel (AKS), 3M (MMM) and Pfizer (PFE) have revealed December-quarter misses and guidance for the near-term below consensus expectations. More of that same downward earnings pressure for the S&P 500 indeed. And yes, those misses and revisions reflect issues we have been discussing the last several months that are still playing out. At least for now, there doesn’t appear to be any significant reversal of those factors, which likely means those negative revisions are poised to continue over the next few weeks.

 

Tematica Investing

With the market essentially treading water over the last several days, so too did the Thematic Leaders.  Apple’s (AAPL) highly anticipated earnings report last night edged out consensus EPS expectations with guidance that was essentially in line. To be clear, the only reason the company’s EPS beat expectations was because of its lower tax rate year over year and the impact of its share buyback program. If we look at its operating profit year over year — our preferred metric here at Tematica — we find profits were down 11% year over year.

With today’s issue already running on the long side, we’ll dig deeper into that Apple report in a stand-alone post on TematicaResearch.com later today or tomorrow, but suffice it to say the market greeted the news from Apple with some relief that it wasn’t worse. That will drive the market higher today, but let’s remember we have several hundred companies yet to report and those along with the Fed’s comments later today and US-China trade comments later this week will determine where the stock market will go in the near-term.

As we wait for that sense of direction, I’ll continue to roll up my sleeves to fill the Guilty Pleasure void we have on the Thematic Leaders since we kicked Altria to the curb last week. Stay tuned!

 

Verizon says “We’re heading into the 5G era”

Yesterday and early this morning, both Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T) reported their respective December quarter results and shared their outlook. Tucked inside those comments, there was a multitude of 5G related mentions, which perked our thematic ears up as it relates to our Disruptive Innovators investing theme.

As Verizon succinctly said, “…we’re heading to the 5G era and the beginning of what many see as the fourth industrial revolution.” No wonder it mentioned 5G 42 times during its earnings call yesterday and shared the majority of its $17-$18 billion in capital spending over the coming year will be spent on 5G. Verizon did stop short of sharing exactly when it would roll out its commercial 5G network, but did close out the earnings conference call with “…We’re going to see much more of 5G commercial, both mobility, and home during 2019.”

While we wait for AT&T’s 5G-related comments on its upcoming earnings conference call, odds are we will hear it spout favorably about 5G as well. Historically other mobile carriers have piled on once one has blazed the trail on technology, services or price. I strongly suspect 5G will fall into that camp as well, which means in the coming months we will begin to hear much more on the disruptive nature of 5G.

 

Nokia gets several boosts ahead of its earnings report

Friday morning one of Disruptive Innovator Leader Nokia’s (NOK) mobile network infrastructure competitors, Ericsson (ERIC), reported its December-quarter results. ERIC shares are trading up following the report, which showed the company’s revenue grew by 10% year over year due primarily to growth at its core Networks business. That strength was largely due to 5G activity in the North American market as mobile operators such as AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and others prepare to launch their 5G commercial networks later this year. And for anyone wondering how important 5G is to Ericsson, it was mentioned 26 times in the company’s earnings press release.

In short, I see Ericsson’s earnings report as extremely positive and confirming for our Nokia and 5G investment thesis.

One other item to mention is the growing consideration for the continued banning of Huawei mobile infrastructure equipment by countries around the world. Currently, those products and services are excluded in the U.S., but the U.K. and other countries in Europe are voicing concerns over Huawei as they look to confirm their national telecommunications infrastructure is secure.

Last week, one of the world’s largest mobile carriers, Vodafone (VOD) announced it would halt buying Huawei gear. BT Group, the British telecom giant, has plans to rip out part of Huawei’s existing network. Last year, Australia banned the use of equipment from Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese supplier of mobile infrastructure and smartphones.

In Monday’s New York Times, there was an article that speaks to the coming deployment of 5G networks both in the U.S. and around the globe, comparing the changes they will bring. Quoting Chris Lane, a telecom analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong it says:

“This will be almost more important than electricity… Everything will be connected, and the central nervous system of these smart cities will be your 5G network.”

That sentiment certainly underscores why 5G technology is housed inside our Disruptive Innovators investing theme. One of the growing concerns following the arrest of two Huawei employees for espionage in Poland is cybersecurity. As the New York Times article points out:

“American and British officials had already grown concerned about Huawei’s abilities after cybersecurity experts, combing through the company’s source code to look for back doors, determined that Huawei could remotely access and control some networks from the company’s Shenzhen headquarters.”

From our perspective, this raises many questions when it comes to Huawei. As companies look to bring 5G networks to market, they are not inclined to wait for answers when other suppliers of 5G equipment stand at the ready, including Nokia.

Nokia will report its quarterly results this Thursday (Jan. 31) and as I write this, consensus expectations call for EPS of $0.14 on revenue of $7.6 billion. Given Ericsson’s quarterly results, I expect an upbeat report. Should that not come to pass, I’m inclined to be patient and hold the shares for some time as commercial 5G networks launches make their way around the globe. If the shares were to fall below our blended buy-in price of $5.55, I’d be inclined to once again scale into them.

  • Our long-term price target for NOK shares remains $8.50.

 

USA Technologies gets an “interim” CFO

Earlier this week, Digital Lifestyle company USA Technologies (USAT) announced it has appointed interim Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Glen Goold. According to LinkedIn, among Goold’s experience, he was CFO at private company Sutron Corp. from Nov 2012 to Feb 2018, an Associate Vice President at Carlyle Group from July 2005 to February 2012, and a Tax Manager at Ernst & Young between 1997-2005. We would say he has the background to be a solid CFO and should be able to clean up the accounting mess that was uncovered at USAT several months ago.

That said, we are intrigued by the “interim” aspect of Mr. Goold’s title — and to be frank, his lack of public company CFO experience. We suspect the “interim” title could fuel speculation that the company is cleaning itself up to be sold, something we touched on last week. As I have said before, we focus on fundamentals, not takeout speculation, but if a deal were to emerge, particularly at a favorable share price, we aren’t ones to fight it.

  • Our price target on USA Technologies (USAT) shares remains $10.

 

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Confirming Data Points for Apple and Universal Display

WEEKLY ISSUE: Confirming Data Points for Apple and Universal Display

Key points inside this issue:

  • The Business Roundtable and recent data suggest trade worries are growing.
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares remains $250.
  • Our price target on Apple (AAPL) and Universal Display (OLED) shares remain $225 and $150, respectively.
  • Changes afoot at S&P, but they still lag our thematic investing approach

 

While investors and the stock market have largely shaken off concerns of a trade war thus far, this week the stakes moved higher. The U.S. initiated the second leg of its tariffs on China, slapping on $200 billion of tariffs on Chinese imports of food ingredients, auto parts, art, chemicals, paper products, apparel, refrigerators, air conditioners, toys, furniture, handbags, and electronics.

China responded, not only by canceling expected trade talks, but by also implementing tariffs of its own to the tune of $60 billion on U.S. exports to China. Those tariffs include medium-sized aircraft, metals, tires, golf clubs, crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG). Factoring in those latest steps, there are tariffs on nearly half of all U.S. imports from China and over 50% of U.S. export to China.

Should President Trump take the next stated step and put tariffs on an additional $267 billion of products, it would basically cover all U.S. imports from China. In terms of timing, let’s remember that we have the U.S. mid-term elections coming up before too long — and one risk we see here at Tematica is China holding off trade talks until after those elections.

On Monday, the latest Business Roundtable survey found that two-thirds of chief executives believed recent tariffs and future trade tension would have a negative impact on their capital investment decisions over the next six months. Roughly one-third expected no impact on their business, while only 2% forecast a positive effect.

That news echoed the recent September Flash U.S. PMI reading from IHS Markit, which included the following commentary:

“The escalation of trade wars, and the accompanying rise in prices, contributed to a darkening of the outlook, with business expectations for the year ahead dropping sharply during the month. While business activity may rebound after the storms, the drop in optimism suggests the longer term outlook has deteriorated, at least in the sense that growth may have peaked.”

Also found in the IHS Markit report:

“Manufacturers widely noted that trade tariffs had led to higher prices for metals and encouraged the forward purchasing of materials… Future expectations meanwhile fell to the lowest so far in 2018, and the second-lowest in over two years, as optimism deteriorated in both the manufacturing and service sectors.”

As if those growing worries weren’t enough, there has been a continued rise in oil prices as OPEC ruled out any immediate increase in production, the latest round of political intrigue inside the Washington Beltway, the growing spending struggle for the coming Italian government budget and Brexit.

Any of these on their own could lead to a reversal in the CNN Money Fear & Greed Index, which has been hanging out in “Greed” territory for the better part of the last month. Taken together, though, it could lead companies to be conservative in terms of guidance in the soon-to-arrive September quarter earnings season, despite the benefits of tax reform on their businesses and on consumer wallets. In other words, these mounting headwinds could weigh on stocks and lead investors to question growth expectations for the fourth quarter.

What’s more, even though S&P 500 EPS expectations still call for 22% EPS growth in 2018 vs. 2017, we’ve started to see some downward revisions in projections for the September and December quarters, which have softened 2018 EPS estimates to $162.01, down from $162.60 several weeks ago. Not a huge drop, but when looking at the current stock market valuation of 18x expected 2018 EPS, remember those expectations hinge on the S&P 500 group of companies growing their EPS more than 21% year over year in the second half of 2018.

 

Any and all of the above factors could weigh on corporate guidance or just rattle investor’s nerves and likely means a bumpy ride over the ensuing weeks as trade and political headlines heat up. As it stands right now, according to data tabulated from FactSet, heading into September quarter earnings, 74 of 98 companies in the S&P 500 that issued guidance, issued negative guidance marking the highest percentage (76%) since 1Q 2016 and compares to the five year average of 71%.

Not alarmingly high, but still higher than the norm, which means I’ll be paying even closer than usual attention to what is said over the coming weeks ahead of the “official” start to September quarter earnings that is Alcoa’s (AA) results on Oct. 17 and what it means for both the Thematic Leaders and the other positions on the Select List.

 

Today is Fed Day

This afternoon the Fed’s FOMC will break from its September meeting, and it is widely expected to boost interest rates. No surprise there, but given what we’ve seen on the trade front and in hard economic data of late, my attention will be on what is said during the post-meeting press conference and what’s contained in the Fed’s updated economic forecast. The big risk I see in the coming months on the Fed front is should the escalating tariff situation lead to a pick-up in inflation, the Fed could feel it is behind the interest rate hike curve leading to not only a more hawkish tone but a quicker pace of rate hikes than is currently expected.

We here at Tematica have talked quite a bit over consumer debt levels and the recent climb in both oil and gas prices is likely putting some extra squeeze on consumers, especially those that fall into our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme. Any pick up in Fed rate hikes means higher interest costs for consumers, taking a bigger bite out of disposable income, which means a step up in their effort to stretch spending dollars. Despite its recent sell-off, I continue to see Costco Wholesale (COST) as extremely well positioned to grab more share of those cash-strapped wallets, particularly as it continues to open new warehouse locations.

  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares remains $250.

 

Favorable Apple and Universal Display News

Outside of those positions, we’d note some favorable news for our Apple (AAPL) shares in the last 24 hours. First, the iPhone XS Max OLED display has reclaimed the “Best Smartphone Display” crown for Apple, which in our view augurs well for other smartphone vendors adopting the technology. This is also a good thing for our Universal Display (OLED) shares as organic light emitting diode displays are present in two-thirds of the new iPhone offerings. In addition to Apple and other smartphone vendors adopting the technology, we are also seeing more TV models adoption it as well. We are also starting to see ultra high-end cars include the technology, which means we are at the beginning of a long adoption road into the automotive lighting market. We see this confirming Universal’s view that demand for the technology and its chemicals bottomed during the June quarter. As a reminder, that view includes 2018 revenue guidance of $280 million-$310 million vs. the $99.7 million recorded in the first half of the year.

Second, Apple has partnered with Salesforce (CRM) as part of the latest step in Apple’s move to leverage the iPhone and iPad in the enterprise market. Other partners for this strategy include IBM (IBM), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Accenture (ACN) CDW Corp. (CDW) and Deloitte. I see this as Apple continuing to chip away at the enterprise market, one that it historically has had limited exposure.

  • Our price target on Apple (AAPL) and Universal Display (OLED) shares remain $225 and $150, respectively.

 

Changes afoot at S&P, but they still lag our thematic investing approach

Before we close out this week’s issue, I wanted to address something big that is happening in markets that I suspect most individuals have not focused on. This week, S&P will roll out the largest revision to its Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) since 1999. Before we dismiss it as yet another piece of Wall Street lingo, it’s important to know that GICS is widely used by portfolio managers and investors to classify companies across 11 sectors. With the inclusion of a new category – Communication Services – it means big changes that can alter an investor’s holdings in a mutual fund or ETF that tracks one of several indices. That shifting of trillions of dollars makes it a pretty big deal on a number of fronts, but it also confirms the shortcomings associated with sector-based investing that we here at Tematica have been calling out for quite some time.

The new GICS category, Communications Services, will replace the Telecom Sector category and include companies that are seen as providing platforms for communication. It will also include companies in the Consumer Discretionary Sector that have been classified in the Media and Internet & Direct Marketing Retail subindustries and some companies from the Information Technology sector. According to S&P, 16 Consumer Discretionary stocks (22% of the sector) will be reclassified as Communications Services as will 7 Information Technology stocks (20% of that sector) as will AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and CenturyLink (CTL). Other companies that are folded in include Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOGL), Disney (DIS), Twitter (TWTR), Snap (SNAP), Netflix (NFLX), Comcast (CMCSA), and DISH Network (DISH) among others.

After these maneuverings are complete, it’s estimated Communication services will be the largest category in the S&P 500 at around 10% of the index leaving weightings for the other 11 sectors in a very different place compared to their history. In other words, some 50 companies are moving into this category and out of others. That will have meaningful implications for mutual funds and ETFs that track these various index components and could lead to some extra volatility as investors and management companies make their adjustments. For example, the Technology Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLK), which tracks the S&P Technology Select Sector Index, contained 10 companies among its 74 holdings that are being rechristened as part of Communications Services. It so happens that XLK is one of the two largest sector funds by assets under management – the other one is the Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLY), which had exposure to 16 companies that are moving into Communications Services.

So what are these moves really trying to accomplish?

The simple answer is they taking an out-of-date classification system of 11 sectors – and are attempting to make them more relevant to changes and developments that have occurred over the last 20 years. For example:

  • Was Apple a smartphone company 20 years ago? No.
  • Did Netflix exist 20 years ago? No.
  • Did Amazon have Amazon Prime Video let alone Amazon Prime 20 year ago? No.
  • Was Facebook around back then? Nope. Should it have been in Consumer Discretionary, to begin with alongside McDonald’s (MCD) and Ralph Lauren (RL)? Certainly not.
  • Did Verizon even consider owning Yahoo or AOL in 1999? Probably not.

 

What we’ve seen with these companies and others has been a morphing of their business models as the various economic, technological, psychographic, demographic and other landscapes around them have changed. It’s what they should be doing, and is the basis for our thematic investment approach — the strong companies will adapt to these evolving tailwinds, while others will sadly fall by the wayside.

These changes, however, expose the shortcomings of sector-based investing. Simply viewing the market through a sector lens fails to capture the real world tailwinds and catalysts that are driving structural changes inside industries, forcing companies to adapt. That’s far better captured in thematic investing, which focuses on those changing landscapes and the tailwinds as well as headwinds that arise and are driving not just sales but operating profit inside of companies.

For example, under the new schema, Microsoft (MSFT) will be in the Communications Services category, but the vast majority of its sales and profits are derived from Office. While Disney owns ESPN and is embarking on its own streaming services, both are far from generating the lion’s share of sales and profits. This likely means their movement into Communications Services is cosmetic in nature and could be premature. This echoes recent concern over the recent changes in the S&P 500 and S&P 100 indices, which have been criticized as S&P trying to make them more relevant than actually reflecting their stated investment strategy. For the S&P 500 that is being a market-capitalization-weighted index of the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies by market value.

As much as we could find fault with the changes, we can’t help it if those institutions, at their core, stick to their outdated thinking. As I have said before about other companies, change is difficult and takes time. And to be fair, for what they do, S&P is good at it, which is why we use them to calculate the NJCU New Jersey 50 Index as part of my work New Jersey City University.

Is this reclassification to update GICS and corresponding indices a step in the right direction?

It is, but it is more like a half step or even a quarter step. There is far more work to be done to make GICS as relevant as it needs to be, not just in today’s world, but the one we are moving into. For that, I’ll continue to stick with our thematic lens-based approach.

 

Holograms are changing how doctors learn

Holograms are changing how doctors learn

 

There is only so much one can learn from a two-dimensional book, and that is prompting the use of holograms, one of the technologies inside our Disruptive Technologies investing theme, in educational settings. Given the many systems and their inner workings inside the human body, holograms are a natural fit with medicine, and in our view especially orthopedics, a growth industry associated with our Aging of the Population investing theme.

 

HoloPatient is one of a suite of educational applications developed by Pearson PLC, the London-based education company, for Microsoft Corp.’s HoloLens headset. When users press a button on the goggles, a three-dimensional, life-size patient avatar appears in a real-life classroom.Though neither mixed reality nor virtual reality—which immerses users in a fully virtual environment—is widespread in health-sciences programs, both are becoming more common. Recently, schools like Texas Tech, Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha have invested in full-scale “simulation centers.” These facilities include mock hospital settings and technology like 360-degree video, interactive digital walls, virtual-reality and mixed-reality headsets and holographic-projection screens. (UNMC’s 192,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in 2019.)

Professors see the technology as a way to immerse students in otherwise inaccessible real-world settings in a relatively cost-effective and easily reproducible way. “Do I want my students to experience a patient fall? Absolutely not,” says Philip Greiner, director of SDSU’s school of nursing, describing a chronic hospital problem. But to prepare them for such a scenario, “I want to be able to reproduce that for every single one of my students.”

Source: How Holograms Are Helping Medical Training – WSJ

Weekly Issue: Looking for Trump-Proof Companies

Weekly Issue: Looking for Trump-Proof Companies

We exited last week with the market realizing there was more bark than bite associated with President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. That period of relative calm, however, was short-lived as the uncertainty resumed in Washington yesterday in the form of changeups in the administration with Trump letting go Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just after agreeing to talks with North Korea, and more saber rattling with trade actions against China for technology, apparel, and other imports. This also follows Trump’s intervention in the proposed takeover of Qualcomm (QCOM) by competitor Broadcom (BRCM).

While many an investor will focus on the “new” volatility in the market, I’ll continue to use our thematic lens to look for companies that are “Trump-Proof” in the short-term. That’s not a political statement, but rather a reflection of the reality that the modus operandi of President Trump and his Twitter habit often cause significant swings in the market as the media attempts to digest and interpret his comments.

How will we find these so-called Trump-proof companies? By continuing to use our thematic lens to uncover well-positioned companies that are benefitting from thematic tailwinds that alter the existing playing field, regardless of the latest noise from Washington politicians.

At least for now, volatility is back in vogue and that is bound to drive headlines and other noise. I’ll continue to focus on the data, and if you read this week’s Monday Morning Kickoff you know we are in the midst of a whopper of a data week. While the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for February was in line with expectations, and on a year over year basis core rose 1.8% — the same as in January — which should take some wind out of the inflation mongers. This morning we have the February Retail Sales report, which in my view should once again serve up confirming data for our positions in Amazon (AMZN) and Costco Wholesale (COST), which continue to benefit from our Connected Society and Cash-strapped Consumer investing themes.  Later in the week, the February reading on Industrial Production should confirm the demands that are exacerbating the current heavy truck shortage here in the U.S. – good news for the Paccar (PCAR)shares on the Tematica Investing Select List.

 

 

An Update on Our Once Star Performer, Universal Display (OLED)

A few weeks ago, I shared an update on Universal Display (OLED) shares, which have been essentially treading water following the company’s December quarter results. Later today, the management team will be presenting at the Susquehanna’s Seventh Annual Semi, Storage & Tech Conference. Odds are the management team will reiterate its view on market digesting the organic light emitting diode capacity additions made over the last several quarters, but I expect they will also describe the growing number of applications that will come on stream in the next 3-6 quarters.  As of late February, Susquehanna had a positive rating on OLED shares with a price target of $200 and I suspect they will have some bullish comments following today’s presentation.

 

Considering the ripples to be had with the latest Connected Society victim, Toys R Us

Over the weekend we were reminded of the situation facing many brick & mortar retailers that are failing to adapt their business to ride our Connected Society investing theme. I’m referring to toy and game retailer Toys R Us, the one-time Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS) or Home Depot (HD) of its industry. Like several sporting goods retailers and electronic & appliance retailers such as Sports Authority, Sports Chalet, and HH Gregg that have gone belly up, if Toys R Us doesn’t get a last-minute lifeline or find a buyer it will likely file Chapter 7.

It’s been a rocky road for the one-time toy supermarket company as it entered bankruptcy in September, aiming to emerge with a leaner business model and more manageable debt. The company obtained a new $3.1 billion loan to keep the stores open during the turnaround effort, but results worsened more than expected during the holidays, casting doubt on the chain’s viability. The company entered this year with more than 800 stores in the U.S. — under both the Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us brands, but by January, it announced the shuttering of 180 locations.

The pending bankruptcy to be had at Toys R Us is but the latest in the retail industry, but it’s not likely to be the last. Claire’s Stores Inc., the fashion accessories chain with a debt load of $2 billion, is also preparing to file for bankruptcy in the coming weeks as is Walking Co. Holdings Inc.

What these all have in common is the increasing shift by consumers to digital commerce and the growing reliance on retailers for what is termed the direct to consumer (D2C) business model. Certain branded apparel, footwear, and other consumer product companies, like Nike (NKE) have embraced Amazon’s formidable logistics capabilities and this has benefitted our United Parcel Service (UPS) shares. As we have said before, and we recognize it sounds rather simplistic, when you order products online they have to get to where they are being sent. Hello UPS!

Now let’s consider the ripple effect of the pending Toys R Us bankruptcy.

When events such as this occur, there is a liquidation effect and a subsequent void. As we saw when Sports Authority went bankrupt, the businesses at Nike and Under Armour (UAA) were impacted by liquidation sales in the short term. At the same time, both lost the recurring sales associated with Sports Authority. Odds are we will see the same happen with Toys R Us with companies like Mattel (MAT) and Hasbro (HAS) taking it on the chin. In my view these companies are already struggling as teens, tweens and kids of all ages shift to digital games, apps and e-gaming, which are aspects of our Connected Society and Content

In my view these companies are already struggling as teens, tweens and kids of all ages shift to digital games, apps and e-gaming, which are aspects of our Connected Society and Content is King themes. When was the last time you saw an elementary schooler play with Ken or Barbie? More likely they are on an iPad or Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox while their older siblings are playing the new craze sweeping the nation – Fortnite. And yes, that it appears the rumors are true and Fornite will soon be available across Apple’s iDevices.

Looking at the financial performance of Mattel, not even the all mighty Star Wars franchise could save them from delivering declining revenue and earnings this past holiday shopping season. On the liquidation front, we are likely to see the toys businesses at Target (TGT) as well as Walmart (WMT) take the brunt of the blow. But here too this is likely just another hit as these two retailers have already been dealing with falling revenue at Mattel and Hasbro. Walmart is the largest customer for Mattel and Hasbro, accounting for about 20% of total sales for each toy maker. Both toy companies get nearly 10% of their revenue from Target too.

One of the investing strategies that I employ with the Select List is “buy the bullets, not the guns” which refers to buying well-positioned suppliers that serve a variety of customers. In situations like what we are seeing in the brick & mortar retail sector, we can turn that strategy upside down and uncover those companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, that we as investors should avoid given the multiple direct and indirect headwinds they are currently facing or about to.

 

Earnings from Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and UPS lead to several price target changes… and not all of them are moving higher

Earnings from Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and UPS lead to several price target changes… and not all of them are moving higher

 

In the last 24 hours we’ve had four Tematica Investing Select List positions – United Parcel Service (UPS) Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOGL) and Apple (AAPL) – report their quarterly earnings. Across the four companies, it was a mixed bag — on one hand, we have solid performance and profits at Amazon and Apple, while on the other hand, both United Parcel Service and Alphabet lagged in converting their respective topline strength into profits. We’re going to dig into company specifics below, but in summary:

  • We are increasing our long-term price target on Amazon shares to $1,750 from $1,400, which keeps our Buy rating on the shares in place. As a quick reminder, we continue to see Amazon as a company to own not trade
  • We are maintaining our $200 price target on Apple, which also keeps our Buy rating intact.
  • With Alphabet shares, we are now boosting our price target to $1,300 from $1,150, which offers upside of 15% from current levels. Subscribers that are underweight GOOGL shares are advised to let the full impact of last night’s earnings announcement be had and wade into the shares in the coming days.
  • We are trimming our United Parcel Service price target to $130 from $132.

 

United Parcel Service

Shares of United Parcel Service slumped throughout the early part of the day yesterday, and while they did recover off their lows, the day ended with the shares down just over 6% following the company’s December quarter earnings report. Inside that report, the company reported slightly better than expected top-line results of $18.83 billion, up 11.2% year over year, vs. the expected $18.2 billion. The issue that pressured UPS shares was revealed in the 2.5% year over year increase in EPS to $1.67 even though that figure was slightly ahead of expectations. Comparing those two growth rates as well as looking at the year over year drop in operating margin for the quarter to 12.2% from 13.1%, we find UPS’s network capacity was once again overwhelmed by the shift to digital shopping in the US. Outside of that business, its profits climbed at its International business as well as Supply Chain and Freight Segment.

Near-term following the year-end holiday shopping season we are entering the seasonally slower part of the year for UPS’s business. If historical patterns repeat, we’re likely to see the shares range-bound over the coming months with them trending higher as more data shows the continued shift toward digital shopping that is powering its UPS Ground business. With more pronounced share gains likely to reveal themselves in the shopping-heavy back half of the year, we’re inclined to be patient investors with UPS, reaping the rewards as more companies continue to embrace the direct-to-consumer business model either on their own or through partnerships with other companies, like Amazon. We will continue to monitor oil and at the pump gas prices, which could be a headwind to UPS’s efforts to improve margins at its US Domestic business in the coming months. In terms of the company’s 2018 outlook, it guided EPS between $7.03-$7.37 billion, a 20% increase year over year at the midpoint, which is in line with expectations.

 

Apple

After the market close yesterday, Apple reported December quarter results that bested Wall Street expectations on the top and bottom line even though iPhone shipments fell short of expectations and dipped year over year. More specifically, the company served up EPS of $3.89 per share, $0.04 ahead of consensus expectation on revenue of $88.29 billion, which edged out expectations of $87.6 billion. While Apple once again bested expectations, the truly revealing revenue and EPS comparisons are had versus the December 2016 quarter as revenue rose 12.6% year over and EPS 16%.

Year over year revenue improvement was had in the iPad and Services business — the latter benefitting from Apple’s continued growth in active devices, which hit 1.3 billion in January, up from 1.0 billion just two years ago. Mac sales, in terms of revenue and units, edged lower year over year and Apple Watch volumes rose 50% year over year on the strength of Apple Watch 3.  Despite the 1.2% year over year drop in iPhone shipments, the higher priced newer models drove the average selling price in the December 2017 quarter to hit roughly $795 up from $695 in the year ago quarter. That pricing surge led iPhone revenue to climb 12.5% to $61.6 billion. Digging into the results, we find the year over year improvements even more impressive when we consider iPhone X didn’t go on sale until early November and the December 2017 quarter had one less week compared to the December 2016 one.

All in all, it was a solid December quarter for Apple, and as we all know, there has been much speculation over iPhone production levels in the first half of the year, particularly for iPhone X. While Apple did issue its take on the March quarter – revenue between $60-$62 billion (vs. $52.9 billion in the March 2017 quarter), gross margin between 38%-38.5% and operating expenses $7.6-$7.7 billion – it was its usual tight-lipped self when it came to device shipments.

Let’s remember chatter over the last few weeks was calling for steep cuts to iPhone X shipments, but Apple ended the December quarter with channel inventories near the lower end of its 5-7-week target range. On the earnings call, Apple shared that iPhone should be up double digits year over year in the March 2018 quarter with the non-iPhone businesses up double digits as well. If we assume iPhone average selling prices remain relatively flat quarter over quarter, back of the envelope math suggests Apple is likely to ship 48-49 million iPhone units – roughly a 3%-5% drop in shipments year over year. That is far less than the talking heads were talking about over the last few weeks and explains why Apple shares rallied in aftermarket trading.

We see this as a positive for our Universal Display (OLED) shares as well – our price target on those remains $225.

From our perspective, the Apple story remains very much intact and with several positives to be had in the coming quarters. When Apple reports its March quarter results, we expect a clearer picture of how Apple plans to leverage the benefits of tax reform on its capital structure and share potential dividend and buyback plans. Next week, Apple’s HomePod will be released and before too long we expect to hear more about iPad and other product refreshes before the talk turns to WWDC 2018. Along the way, we hope to hear more concrete plans over Apple’s push into original content, a move we continue to think will make its ecosystem even stickier and likely result in even more people switching to Apple devices.

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

 

Amazon

Turning to Amazon, we were expecting a strong quarter given all the data points we received over the accelerated shift to digital shopping during the 2017 holiday season and we were not disappointed. For the December quarter, Amazon’s net sales increased 38% to $60.5 billion. Excluding the $1.1 billion favorable impact from year-over-year changes in foreign exchange rates, the quarter’s net sales still increased a robust increased 36% year over year. By reporting segments, North America revenues rose an impressive 42% year over year, International by 29% and Amazon Web Services (AWS) just under 45%.

More impressive than the segment revenue results was the year over year move in operating income in North America, which rose 107% for the quarter, and the increase in sales in AWS (Amazon’s cloud computing division), with sales increasing 46% for the quarter. That led the company’s overall operating income to climb to $2.1 billion in the quarter, up significantly from $1.3 billion in December 2016 quarter. In our view, after delivering 11 quarters of profitability, Amazon has shown the naysayers that it can prudently invest to drive profitable growth and innovation. Period.

The seasonally strong shopping quarter resulted in Amazon’s North America division being the largest generator of profit for the quarter, a role that is usually had by AWS. Looking at the profit picture for the full year 2017, we find AWS generated nearly all of the company’s operating profit. We continue to be impressed by Amazon’s ability to win not just profitable cloud market share but fend off margin erosion as players like Alphabet and Microsoft (MSFT) look to win share in this market.

If we had to find one issue to pick with Amazon’s December quarter report it would be the continued losses at its International business. Those losses tallied $0.9 billion in the December 2017 quarter and $3.06 billion for all of 2017.  We understand Amazon continues to expand its footprint in Europe and Asia, replicating the Prime and content investments it has made in the US, to drive long-term growth. As we have said before, Amazon is leveraging its secret weapon, AWS (10% of 2017 sales but more than 100% of 2017 operating profits), and its cash flow to fund these long-term investments and as patient investors, we accept that. We would, however, like to have a better understanding what the timetable is for bringing the International business up to at least to break even so it’s no longer a drag on the company’s bottom line.

In typical Amazon fashion, Amazon’s earnings press release contained a plethora of highlights across its various businesses, but the few that jumped out at us were:

  • In 2017, more than five billion items shipped with Prime worldwide.
  • More new paid members joined Prime in 2017 than any previous year — both worldwide and in the U.S.
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced several enterprise customers during the quarter: Expedia, Ellucian, and DigitalGlobe are going all-in on AWS; The Walt Disney Company and Turner named AWS their preferred public cloud provider; Symantec will leverage AWS as its strategic infrastructure provider for the vast majority of its cloud workloads; Expedia, Intuit, the National Football League (NFL), Capital One, DigitalGlobe, and Cerner announced they’ve chosen AWS for machine learning and artificial intelligence; and Bristol-Myers Squibb, Honeywell, Experian, FICO, Insitu, LexisNexis, Sysco, Discovery Communications, Dow Jones, and Ubisoft kicked off major new moves to AWS
  • AWS continues to accelerate its pace of innovation with the release of 497 significant new services and features in the fourth quarter, bringing the total number of launches in 2017 to 1,430.

 

Those are but a few of the three-plus pages of highlights contained in the December quarter’s earnings press release. These and others show Amazon continues to expand its reach, laying the groundwork for further profitable growth in the coming quarters.

In characteristic fashion, Amazon issued revenue guidance for the current quarter that was in line with expectations – $47.75 – $48.7 billion – that equates to year over year growth between 34%-42%. Per usual, the company also issued it “you could drive a truck through it” operating income forecast calling for $0.3-$1.0 billion for the quarter.

  • We are boosting our price target on Amazon (AMZN) shares to $1,750 from $1,400 and we continue to view them as ones to own for the long-term as the company continues to disrupt the retail industry and is poised to make inroads into others.

 

Alphabet/Google

Rounding out yesterday’s earnings blitzkrieg, was Alphabet, which delivered yet another 20% plus increase in revenue for the December quarter. The performance bested Wall Street expectations, but the company’s bottom line disappointed and missed the consensus by $0.37 per share.

For the record, Alphabet reported December quarter EPS of $9.70 vs. the expected $10.07 on revenue of $32.32 billion. At 85% of overall revenue for the quarter, advertising remains the core focus of revenue. Year over year in the quarter, the company’s advertising revenue rose 22% with growth compared to the year ago quarter also had at its Network Members’ properties and other revenue segments.

The difference between the company’s top line beat and bottom line miss can be traced primarily to its Traffic Acquisition Costs (TAC) — the fees it pays to partner websites that run Google ads or services. Those fees climbed 33% year over year to resemble 24% of advertising revenue vs. 22% in the December 2016 quarter. The continued rise in TAC reflects the ongoing shift in the company’s mix toward mobile, which makes the increase not a surprising one as mobile search and content consumption continues to grow faster than desktop.

On a positive note, the company prudently managed operating expenses, which accounted for 26.6% of revenue in the quarter down from 27% a year ago. The net effect led Alphabet’s overall operating margin for the quarter to slip to 24% from 25% in the December 2016 quarter.

Outside of the core advertising business, the company continues to make progress on its other initiatives better known as Google Other, which includes cloud, its Pixel phones and Google Play. On the earnings call, the management team called out that Google Cloud has surpassed $1 billion, a notable achievement but to be fair the company lags considerably behind Amazon in the space. That said, ongoing cloud adoption leaves ample room for future growth in the coming quarters.

Turning to the company’s Other Bets segment, which houses its autonomous vehicle business Waymo, Google Fiber, home security and automation business Nest and its Verily life sciences business units, it continues to be a drag on overall profits given the operating loss of $916 million on revenue of $409 million. The positive to be had is the unit’s revenue climbed 56% year over year and size of the operating drag compressed 16% vs. the year-ago quarter and was less than $940 million it was Wall Street expected it to be. We see that as progress given the less than mature nature of the businesses housed in Other Bets. As they mature further, we expect them to be less of a drag on overall profits with several of them potentially adding to the valuation argument to be had for the shares as they become a more meaningful piece of the overall revenue mix.

On the housekeeping front, the company’s Board authorized the repurchase up to an additional $8.6 billion of its Class C capital stock. With more than $101 billion on the balance sheet in cash and equivalents exiting 2017 the company has ample funds to opportunistically repurchase shares.

  • The net impact of Alphabet’s bottom line miss looks to have the shares open lower this morning, which when paired with our new $1,300 price target (up from $1,150) offers some 15% upside to be had. That along with our view the company’s search and advertising businesses make it a core holding even as it grapples with the transition to mobile from desktop.