Weekly issue: Downside Protection Critical Amid These Uncertain Conditions

Weekly issue: Downside Protection Critical Amid These Uncertain Conditions

Key points inside this issue

  • Ahead of the Fed’s latest dot blot, 2019 GDP expectations move lower.
  • With uncertainties again on the rise, we reiterate our Buy rating on the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) ahead of the upcoming March quarter earnings season.

 

Weakening GDP Expectations for the Remainder of 2019

Looking back over the last few weekly issues, it would be fair to say they were a little wordy. What can I say, between the economic data and earnings season, plus thematic data points, there was a lot to share over the last few weeks. Today, however, I’m going to cut to the point with my comments, largely because all investor eyes and ears are waiting to see and hear what Fed Chair Jerome Powell has to say about the speed of the US economy as they look for signs over what is coming next out of the Fed.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the slowing speed of the global economy, and even though there have been some individual bright spots across the aggregated hard and soft economic data from both government and third-party sources, the slowing speed is hard to ignore. Based on the published data, domestic GDP hit 3.1% last year, and as we’ve shared recently we’ve started to see the expectations for 2019 move lower in recent weeks. Per the March CNBC Fed Survey of 43 economists and Fed watcher findings, GDP for 2019 is now expected to clock in around 2.3% — not quite cut in half compared to 2018, but dramatically lower and significantly lower than folks were looking for in the back half of 2018.

When the Fed issues its post FOMC meeting statement today, the focus will more than likely not be on the interest rate decision – almost no one expects a hike. Instead, rapt attention will be paid to the Fed’s updated economic dot plot, which will reveal how it sees the US economy shaping up. Let’s remember that one unofficial aspect of the Fed’s job is to be a cheerleader for the economy, so it becomes a question of “if they are cutting their GDP forecast” how deep of a cut could we really see?

Culprits of the slowing economy and these cuts include aspects of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme as consumers in the US grapple with debt levels that have risen precipitously over the last several years. The consumer spending tailwind associated with our Living the Life investing theme appears to be slowing some given the rising debt levels of Chinese consumers. Governments have also run up debt in recent years as the current business cycle has grown longer in the tooth. And of course, there is the impact of currency as well as political and trade uncertainties, including the pushout of US-China trade talks to June.

 

Downside Protection is Key Under These Circumstances

In a little over 10 days, we will be exiting March, entering the second quarter and beginning the earnings season dance all over again. My concern is that given the above and the several unknowns therein, we are poised to see another earnings season during which aggregate expectations will be adjusted lower. Case in point, with the  US-China trade agreement timetable slipping and slipping, it becomes rather difficult for a company to factor any resolution into its guidance, especially when the terms of the agreement are unknown.

Despite all of the above, the domestic stock market has continued to chug higher, once again approaching overbought levels, even though 2019 EPS cuts for the S&P 500 have made the market even more expensive than it was as we exited 2018.

The potential poster child for this is FedEx (FDX), which saw its shares take a fall last night after the company cut its annual profit forecast for the second time in three months due to slowing global growth, rising costs from a 2016 acquisition in Europe and questions over its ability to withstand U.S.-China trade tensions and uncertainty over the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

Not to go all Groundhog Day on you, but this looks increasingly like the situation we saw in December when I added the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) to the Select List. If we didn’t have those shares to offer some downside protection for what lies ahead, I would be adding them today. If you don’t have any of those shares in your holdings, my advice would be to add some. Much like insurance, you may not know exactly when you’ll need it, but you’ll be happy to have it when something goes bad.

  • With uncertainties again on the rise, we reiterate our Buy rating on the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) ahead of the upcoming March quarter earnings season.

 

 

Weekly issue: Adding Even More Downside Protection

Weekly issue: Adding Even More Downside Protection

Key points inside this issue

  • Ahead of the Fed’s latest dot blot, 2019 GDP expectations move lower.
  • With uncertainties again on the rise, we reiterate our Buy rating on the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) ahead of the upcoming March quarter earnings season.
  • We are issuing a Buy on and adding the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) May 17, 2019, 29.00 calls (SH 190517C00029000) that closed last night at 0.25 to the Select List with a stop loss set at 0.15.
  • Given the drop in Del Frisco (DFRG) shares last week, following an earnings report with no new update on the potential takeout of the company, we were stopped out of our call position.
  • We will continue to hold our Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700) that closed last night at 0.40, nicely in the green.

 

Weakening GDP Expectations for the Remainder of 2019

Looking back over the last few weekly issues, it would be fair to say they were a little wordy. What can I say, between the economic data and earnings season, plus thematic data points, there was a lot to share over the last few weeks. Today, however, I’m going to cut to the point with my comments, largely because all investor eyes and ears are waiting to see and hear what Fed Chair Jerome Powell has to say about the speed of the US economy as they look for signs over what is coming next out of the Fed.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the slowing speed of the global economy, and even though there have been some individual bright spots across the aggregated hard and soft economic data from both government and third-party sources, the slowing speed is hard to ignore. Based on the published data, domestic GDP hit 3.1% last year, and as we’ve shared recently we’ve started to see the expectations for 2019 move lower in recent weeks. Per the March CNBC Fed Survey of 43 economists and Fed watcher findings, GDP for 2019 is now expected to clock in around 2.3% — not quite cut in half compared to 2018, but dramatically lower and significantly lower than folks were looking for in the back half of 2018.

When the Fed issues its post FOMC meeting statement today, the focus will more than likely not be on the interest rate decision – almost no one expects a hike. Instead, rapt attention will be paid to the Fed’s updated economic dot plot, which will reveal how it sees the US economy shaping up. Let’s remember that one unofficial aspect of the Fed’s job is to be a cheerleader for the economy, so it becomes a question of “if they are cutting their GDP forecast” how deep of a cut could we really see?

Culprits of the slowing economy and these cuts include aspects of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme as consumers in the US grapple with debt levels that have risen precipitously over the last several years. The consumer spending tailwind associated with our Living the Life investing theme appears to be slowing some given the rising debt levels of Chinese consumers. Governments have also run up debt in recent years as the current business cycle has grown longer in the tooth. And of course, there is the impact of currency as well as political and trade uncertainties, including the pushout of US-China trade talks to June.

 

Downside Protection is Key Under These Circumstances

In a little over 10 days, we will be exiting March, entering the second quarter and beginning the earnings season dance all over again. My concern is that given the above and the several unknowns therein, we are poised to see another earnings season during which aggregate expectations will be adjusted lower. Case in point, with the  US-China trade agreement timetable slipping and slipping, it becomes rather difficult for a company to factor any resolution into its guidance, especially when the terms of the agreement are unknown.

Despite all of the above, the domestic stock market has continued to chug higher, once again approaching overbought levels, even though 2019 EPS cuts for the S&P 500 have made the market even more expensive than it was as we exited 2018.

The potential poster child for this is FedEx (FDX), which saw its shares take a fall last night after the company cut its annual profit forecast for the second time in three months due to slowing global growth, rising costs from a 2016 acquisition in Europe and questions over its ability to withstand U.S.-China trade tensions and uncertainty over the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

Not to go all Groundhog Day on you, but this looks increasingly like the situation we saw in December when I added the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) to the Select List. If we didn’t have those shares to offer some downside protection for what lies ahead, I would be adding them today. If you don’t have any of those shares in your holdings, my advice would be to add some. Much like insurance, you may not know exactly when you’ll need it, but you’ll be happy to have it when something goes bad.

  • With uncertainties again on the rise, we reiterate our Buy rating on the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) ahead of the upcoming March quarter earnings season.

 

Tematica Options+

Given the above comments, I’m adding the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) May 17, 2019, 29.00 calls (SH 190517C00029000) that closed last night at 0.25. This strike date, unlike that for the April calls, will carry us well into the March quarter earnings season and the calls are extremely liquid. As we set a stop loss at 0.15, I will share that should we get stopped out of this position in next few weeks should the market inches higher without any real resolution to the uncertainties we discussed above, I will be inclined to recommend another, similar market hedging call trade.

 

Given the drop in Del Frisco (DFRG) shares last week, following an earnings report with no new update on the potential takeout of the company, we were stopped out of our call position. We will continue to hold our Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700)that closed last night at 0.40, nicely in the green.

 

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Key point inside this issue

  • We are doubling down on Dycom (DY) shares on the Thematic Leader board and adjusting our price target to $80 from $100, which still offers significant upside from our new cost basis as the 5G and gigabit fiber buildout continues over the coming quarters.

We are coming at you earlier than usual this week in part to share my thoughts on all of the economic data we received late last week.

 

Last week’s data confirms the US economy is slowing

With two-thirds of the current quarter behind now in the books, the continued move higher in the markets has all the major indices up double-digits year to date, ranging from around 11.5-12.0%% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 to nearly 18% for the small-cap heavy Russell 2000. In recent weeks we have discussed my growing concerns that the market’s melt-up hinges primarily on U.S.-China trade deal prospects as earnings expectations for this year have been moving lower, dividend cuts have been growing and the global economy continues to slow. The U.S. continues to look like the best economic house on the block even though it, too, is slowing.

On Friday, a round of IHS Markit February PMI reports showed that three of the four global economic horsemen — Japan, China, and the eurozone — were in contraction territory for the month. New orders in Japan and China improved but fell in the eurozone, which likely means those economies will continue to slug it out in the near-term especially since export orders across all three regions fell month over month. December-quarter GDP was revealed to be 2.6% sequentially, which equates to a 3.1% improvement year over year but is down compared to the 3.5% GDP reading of the September quarter and 4.2% in the June one.  Slower growth to be sure, but still growing in the December quarter.

Before we break out the bubbly, though, the IHS Markit February U.S. Manufacturing PMI fell to its lowest reading in 18 months as rates of output and new order growth softened as did inflationary pressures. This data suggest the U.S. manufacturing sector is growing at its slowest rate in several quarters, as did the February ISM Manufacturing Index reading, which slipped month over month and missed expectations. Declines were seen almost across the board for that ISM index save for new export orders, which grew modestly month over month. The new order component of the February ISM Manufacturing Index dropped to 55.5 from 58.2 in January, but candidly this line item has been all over the place the last few months. The January figure rebounded nicely from 51.3 in December, which was down sharply from 61.8 in November. This zig-zag pattern likely reflects growing uncertainty in the manufacturing economy given the pace of the global economy and uncertainty on the trade front. Generally speaking though, falling orders translate into a slower production and this means carefully watching both the ISM and IHS Markit data over the coming months.

In sum, the manufacturing economy across the four key economies continued to slow in February. On a wider, more global scale, J.P. Morgan’s Global Manufacturing PMI fell to 50.6 in February, its lowest level since June 2016. Per J.P. Morgan’s findings, “the rate of expansion in new orders stayed close to the stagnation mark,” which suggests we are not likely to see a pronounced rebound in the near-term. We see this as allowing the Fed to keep its dovish view, and as we discuss below odds are it will be joined by the European Central Bank this week.

Other data out Friday included the December readings for Personal Income & Spending and the January take on Personal Income. The key takeaway was personal income fell for the first time in more than three years during January, easily coming in below the gains expected by economists. Those pieces of data not only help explain the recent December Retail Sales miss but alongside reports of consumer credit card debt topping $1 trillion and record delinquencies for auto and student loans, point to more tepid consumer spending ahead. As I’ve shared before, that is a headwind for the overall US economy but also a tailwind for those companies, like Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST), that help consumers stretch the disposable income they do have.

We have talked quite a bit in recent Tematica Investing issues about revisions to S&P 500 2019 EPS estimates, which at last count stood at +4.7% year over year, down significantly from over +11% at the start of the December quarter. Given the rash of reports last week – more than 750 in total –  we will likely see that expected rate of growth tweaked a bit lower.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing U.S. and global economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as it has moved higher in recent weeks, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but last week we saw President Trump abruptly end the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un with no joint agreement after Kim insisted all U.S. sanctions be lifted on his country. This action spooked the market, leading some to revisit the potential for a favorable trade deal between the U.S. and China.

Measuring the success of any trade agreement will hinge on the details. Should it fail to live up to expectations, which is a distinct possibility, we could very well see a “buy the rumor, sell the news” situation arise in the stock market. As I watch for these developments to unfold, given the mismatch in the stock market between earnings and dividends vs. the market’s move thus far in 2019 I will also be watching insider selling in general but also for those companies on the Thematic Leader Board as well as the Tematica Select List. While insiders can be sellers for a variety of reasons, should we see a pronounced and somewhat across the board pick up in such activity, it could be another warning sign.

 

What to Watch This Week

This week we will see a noticeable drop in the velocity of earnings reports, but we will still get a number of data points that investors and economists will use to triangulate the speed of the current quarter’s GDP relative to the 2.6% print for the December quarter. The consensus GDP forecast for the current quarter is for a slower economy at +2.0%, but we have started to see some economists trim their forecasts as more economic data rolls in. Because that data has fallen shy of expectations, it has led the Citibank Economic Surprise Index (CESI) to once again move into negative territory and the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow current quarter forecast now sat at 0.3% as of Friday.

On the economic docket this week, we have December Construction Spending, ISM’s February Non-Manufacturing Index reading, the latest consumer credit figures and the February reports on job creation and unemployment from ADP (ADP) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With Home Depot (HD) reporting relatively mild December weather, any pronounced shortfall in December Construction Spending will likely serve to confirm the economy is on a slowing vector. Much like we did above with ISM’s February Manufacturing Index we’ll be looking into the Non-Manufacturing data to determine demand and inflation dynamics as well as the tone of the services economy.

On the jobs front, while we will be watching the numbers created, including any aberration owing to the recent federal government shutdown, it will be the wage and hours worked data that we’ll be focusing on. Wage data will show signs of any inflationary pressures, while hours worked will indicate how much labor slack there is in the economy. The consumer is in a tighter spot financially speaking, which was reflected in recent retail sales and personal spending data. Recognizing the role consumer spending plays in the overall speed of the U.S. economy, we will be scrutinizing the upcoming consumer credit data rather closely.

In addition to the hard data, we’ll also get the Fed’s latest Beige Book, which should provide a feel for how the regional economies are faring thus far in 2019. Speaking of central bankers, next Wednesday will bring the results of the next European Central Bank meeting. Given the data depicted in the February IHS Markit reports we discussed above, the probability is high the ECB will join the Fed in a more dovish tone.

While the velocity of earnings reports does indeed drop dramatically next week, there will still be several reports worth digging into, including Ross Stores (ROST), Kohl’s (KSS), Target (TGT), BJ’s Wholesale (BJ), and Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST) will also issue their latest quarterly results. Those reports combined with the ones this week, including solid results from TJX Companies (TJX) last week should offer a more complete look at consumer spending, and where that spending is occurring. Given the discussion several paragraphs above, TJX’s results last week, and the monthly sales reports from Costco, odds are quite good that Costco should serve up yet another report showcasing consumer wallet share gains.

Outside of apparel and home, reports from United Natural Foods (UNFI) and National Beverage (FIZZ) should corroborate the accelerating shift toward food and beverages that are part of our Cleaner Living investing theme. In that vein, I’ll be intrigued to see what Tematica Select List resident International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) has to say about the demand for its line of organic and natural solutions.

The same can be said with Kroger (KR) as well as its efforts to fend off Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT). Tucked inside of Kroger’s comments, we will be curious to see what the company says about digital grocery shopping and delivery. On Kroger’s last earnings conference call, Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen shared the following, “We are aggressively investing to build digital platforms because they give our customers the ability to have anything, anytime, anywhere from Kroger, and because they’re a catalyst to grow our business and improve margins in the future.” Now to see what progress has been achieved over the last 90 or so days and what Kroger has to say about the late-Friday report that Amazon will launch its own chain of supermarkets.

 

Tematica Investing

As you can see in the chart above, for the most part, our Thematic Leaders have been delivering solid performance. Shares of Costco Wholesale (COST) and Nokia (NOK) are notable laggards, but with Costco’s earnings report later this week which will also include its February same-store sales, I see the company’s business and the shares once again coming back into investor favor as it continues to win consumer wallet share. That was clearly evident in its December and January same-store sales reports. With Nokia, coming out of Mobile World Congress 2019 last week, we have confirmation that 5G is progressing, with more network launches coming and more devices coming as well in the coming quarters. We’ll continue to be patient with NOK shares.

 

Adding significantly to our position in Thematic Leader Dycom Industries

There are two positions on the leader board – Aging of the Population AMN Healthcare (AMN) and Digital Infrastructure Dycom Industries (DY) – that are in the red. The recent and sharp drop in Dycom shares follows the company’s disappointing quarterly report in which costs grew faster than 14.3% year over year increase in revenue, pressuring margins and the company’s bottom line. As we’ve come to expect this alongside the near-term continuation of those margin pressures, as you can see below, simply whacked DY shares last week, dropping them into oversold territory.

 

When we first discussed Dycom’s business, I pointed out the seasonal tendencies of its business, and that likely means some of the February winter weather brought some added disruptions as will the winter weather that is hitting parts of the country as you read this. Yet, we know that Dycom’s top customers – AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), Comcast (CMCSA) and CenturyLink (CTL) are busy expanding the footprint of their connective networks. That’s especially true with the 5G buildout efforts at AT&T and Verizon, which on a combined basis accounted for 42% of Dycom’s January quarter revenue.

Above I shared that coming out of Mobile World Congress 2019, commercial 5G deployments are likely to be a 2020 event but as we know the networks, base stations, and backhaul capabilities will need to be installed ahead of those launches. To me, this strongly suggests that Dycom’s business will improve in the coming quarters, and as that happens, it’s bound to move down the cost curve as efficiencies and other aspects of higher utilization are had. For that reason, we are using last week’s 26% drop in DY shares to double our position size in DY shares on the Thematic Leader board. This will reduce our blended cost basis to roughly $64 from the prior $82. As we buy up the shares, I’m also resetting our price target on DY shares to $80, down from the prior $100, which offers significant upside from the current share price and our blended cost basis.

If you’re having second thoughts on this decision, think of it this way – doesn’t it seem rather strange that DY shares would fall by such a degree given the coming buildout that we know is going to occur over the coming quarters? If Dycom’s customers were some small, regional operators I would have some concerns, but that isn’t the case. These customers will build out those networks, and it means Dycom will be put to work in the coming quarters, generating revenue, profits, and cash flow along the way.

In last week’s Tematica Investing I dished on Warren Buffett’s latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) shareholders. In thinking about Dycom, another Buffett-ism comes to mind – “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.” Since this is a multi-quarter buildout for Dycom, we will need to be patient, but as we know for the famous encounter between the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

  • We are doubling down on Dycom (DY) shares on the Thematic Leader board and adjusting our price target to $80 from $100, which still offers significant upside from our new cost basis as the 5G and gigabit fiber buildout continues over the coming quarters.

 

As the pace of earnings slows, over the next few weeks I’ll not only be revisiting the recent 25% drop in Aging of the Population Thematic Leader AMN Healthcare to determine if we should make a similar move like the one we are doing with Dycom, but I’ll also be taking closer looks at wireless charging company Energous Corp. (WATT) and The Alkaline Water Company (WTER). Those two respectively fall under our Disruptive Innovators and Cleaner Living investing themes. Are they worthy of making it onto the Select List or bumping one of our Thematic Leaders? We’ll see…. And as I examine these two, I’m also pouring over some candidates to fill the Guilty Pleasure vacancy on the leader board.

 

 

Adding two Middle-class Squeeze call option positions ahead of earnings this week

Adding two Middle-class Squeeze call option positions ahead of earnings this week

Key point inside this issue

We are coming at you earlier than usual this week in part to share my thoughts on all of the economic data we received late last week, but also to share a new call option trade with you. The timing on that trade is important because the underlying company will report its quarterly results after Tuesday’s (March 5) market close. With that said, let’s get to the issues at hand…

 

Last week’s data confirms the US economy is slowing

With two-thirds of the current quarter behind now in the books, the continued move higher in the markets has all the major indices up double-digits year to date, ranging from around 11.5-12.0%% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 to nearly 18% for the small-cap heavy Russell 2000. In recent weeks we have discussed my growing concerns that the market’s melt-up hinges primarily on U.S.-China trade deal prospects as earnings expectations for this year have been moving lower, dividend cuts have been growing and the global economy continues to slow. The U.S. continues to look like the best economic house on the block even though it, too, is slowing.

On Friday, a round of IHS Markit February PMI reports showed that three of the four global economic horsemen — Japan, China, and the eurozone — were in contraction territory for the month. New orders in Japan and China improved but fell in the eurozone, which likely means those economies will continue to slug it out in the near-term especially since export orders across all three regions fell month over month. December-quarter GDP was revealed to be 2.6% sequentially, which equates to a 3.1% improvement year over year but is down compared to the 3.5% GDP reading of the September quarter and 4.2% in the June one.  Slower growth to be sure, but still growing in the December quarter.

Before we break out the bubbly, though, the IHS Markit February U.S. Manufacturing PMI fell to its lowest reading in 18 months as rates of output and new order growth softened as did inflationary pressures. This data suggest the U.S. manufacturing sector is growing at its slowest rate in several quarters, as did the February ISM Manufacturing Index reading, which slipped month over month and missed expectations. Declines were seen almost across the board for that ISM index save for new export orders, which grew modestly month over month. The new order component of the February ISM Manufacturing Index dropped to 55.5 from 58.2 in January, but candidly this line item has been all over the place the last few months. The January figure rebounded nicely from 51.3 in December, which was down sharply from 61.8 in November. This zig-zag pattern likely reflects growing uncertainty in the manufacturing economy given the pace of the global economy and uncertainty on the trade front. Generally speaking though, falling orders translate into a slower production and this means carefully watching both the ISM and IHS Markit data over the coming months.

In sum, the manufacturing economy across the four key economies continued to slow in February. On a wider, more global scale, J.P. Morgan’s Global Manufacturing PMI fell to 50.6 in February, its lowest level since June 2016. Per J.P. Morgan’s findings, “the rate of expansion in new orders stayed close to the stagnation mark,” which suggests we are not likely to see a pronounced rebound in the near-term. We see this as allowing the Fed to keep its dovish view, and as we discuss below odds are it will be joined by the European Central Bank this week.

Other data out Friday included the December readings for Personal Income & Spending and the January take on Personal Income. The key takeaway was personal income fell for the first time in more than three years during January, easily coming in below the gains expected by economists. Those pieces of data not only help explain the recent December Retail Sales miss but alongside reports of consumer credit card debt topping $1 trillion and record delinquencies for auto and student loans, point to more tepid consumer spending ahead. As I’ve shared before, that is a headwind for the overall US economy but also a tailwind for those companies, like Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST), that help consumers stretch the disposable income they do have.

We have talked quite a bit in recent Tematica Investing issues about revisions to S&P 500 2019 EPS estimates, which at last count stood at +4.7% year over year, down significantly from over +11% at the start of the December quarter. Given the rash of reports last week – more than 750 in total –  we will likely see that expected rate of growth tweaked a bit lower.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing U.S. and global economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as it has moved higher in recent weeks, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but last week we saw President Trump abruptly end the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un with no joint agreement after Kim insisted all U.S. sanctions be lifted on his country. This action spooked the market, leading some to revisit the potential for a favorable trade deal between the U.S. and China.

Measuring the success of any trade agreement will hinge on the details. Should it fail to live up to expectations, which is a distinct possibility, we could very well see a “buy the rumor, sell the news” situation arise in the stock market. As I watch for these developments to unfold, given the mismatch in the stock market between earnings and dividends vs. the market’s move thus far in 2019 I will also be watching insider selling in general but also for those companies on the Thematic Leader Board as well as the Tematica Select List. While insiders can be sellers for a variety of reasons, should we see a pronounced and somewhat across the board pick up in such activity, it could be another warning sign.

 

What to Watch This Week

This week we will see a noticeable drop in the velocity of earnings reports, but we will still get a number of data points that investors and economists will use to triangulate the speed of the current quarter’s GDP relative to the 2.6% print for the December quarter. The consensus GDP forecast for the current quarter is for a slower economy at +2.0%, but we have started to see some economists trim their forecasts as more economic data rolls in. Because that data has fallen shy of expectations, it has led the Citibank Economic Surprise Index (CESI) to once again move into negative territory and the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow current quarter forecast now sat at 0.3% as of Friday.

On the economic docket this week, we have December Construction Spending, ISM’s February Non-Manufacturing Index reading, the latest consumer credit figures and the February reports on job creation and unemployment from ADP (ADP) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With Home Depot (HD) reporting relatively mild December weather, any pronounced shortfall in December Construction Spending will likely serve to confirm the economy is on a slowing vector. Much like we did above with ISM’s February Manufacturing Index we’ll be looking into the Non-Manufacturing data to determine demand and inflation dynamics as well as the tone of the services economy.

On the jobs front, while we will be watching the numbers created, including any aberration owing to the recent federal government shutdown, it will be the wage and hours worked data that we’ll be focusing on. Wage data will show signs of any inflationary pressures, while hours worked will indicate how much labor slack there is in the economy. The consumer is in a tighter spot financially speaking, which was reflected in recent retail sales and personal spending data. Recognizing the role consumer spending plays in the overall speed of the U.S. economy, we will be scrutinizing the upcoming consumer credit data rather closely.

In addition to the hard data, we’ll also get the Fed’s latest Beige Book, which should provide a feel for how the regional economies are faring thus far in 2019. Speaking of central bankers, next Wednesday will bring the results of the next European Central Bank meeting. Given the data depicted in the February IHS Markit reports we discussed above, the probability is high the ECB will join the Fed in a more dovish tone.

While the velocity of earnings reports does indeed drop dramatically next week, there will still be several reports worth digging into, including Ross Stores (ROST), Kohl’s (KSS), Target (TGT), BJ’s Wholesale (BJ), and Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST) will also issue their latest quarterly results. Those reports combined with the ones this week, including solid results from TJX Companies (TJX) last week should offer a more complete look at consumer spending, and where that spending is occurring. Given the discussion several paragraphs above, TJX’s results last week, and the monthly sales reports from Costco, odds are quite good that Costco should serve up yet another report showcasing consumer wallet share gains.

Outside of apparel and home, reports from United Natural Foods (UNFI) and National Beverage (FIZZ) should corroborate the accelerating shift toward food and beverages that are part of our Cleaner Living investing theme. In that vein, I’ll be intrigued to see what Tematica Select List resident International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) has to say about the demand for its line of organic and natural solutions.

The same can be said with Kroger (KR) as well as its efforts to fend off Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT). Tucked inside of Kroger’s comments, we will be curious to see what the company says about digital grocery shopping and delivery. On Kroger’s last earnings conference call, Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen shared the following, “We are aggressively investing to build digital platforms because they give our customers the ability to have anything, anytime, anywhere from Kroger, and because they’re a catalyst to grow our business and improve margins in the future.” Now to see what progress has been achieved over the last 90 or so days and what Kroger has to say about the late-Friday report that Amazon will launch its own chain of supermarkets.

 

Tematica Investing

As you can see in the chart above, for the most part, our Thematic Leaders have been delivering solid performance. Shares of Costco Wholesale (COST) and Nokia (NOK) are notable laggards, but with Costco’s earnings report later this week which will also include its February same-store sales, I see the company’s business and the shares once again coming back into investor favor as it continues to win consumer wallet share. That was clearly evident in its December and January same-store sales reports. With Nokia, coming out of Mobile World Congress 2019 last week, we have confirmation that 5G is progressing, with more network launches coming and more devices coming as well in the coming quarters. We’ll continue to be patient with NOK shares.

 

Adding significantly to our position in Thematic Leader Dycom Industries

There are two positions on the leader board – Aging of the Population AMN Healthcare (AMN) and Digital Infrastructure Dycom Industries (DY) – that are in the red. The recent and sharp drop in Dycom shares follows the company’s disappointing quarterly report in which costs grew faster than 14.3% year over year increase in revenue, pressuring margins and the company’s bottom line. As we’ve come to expect this alongside the near-term continuation of those margin pressures, as you can see below, simply whacked DY shares last week, dropping them into oversold territory.

 

When we first discussed Dycom’s business, I pointed out the seasonal tendencies of its business, and that likely means some of the February winter weather brought some added disruptions as will the winter weather that is hitting parts of the country as you read this. Yet, we know that Dycom’s top customers – AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), Comcast (CMCSA) and CenturyLink (CTL) are busy expanding the footprint of their connective networks. That’s especially true with the 5G buildout efforts at AT&T and Verizon, which on a combined basis accounted for 42% of Dycom’s January quarter revenue.

Above I shared that coming out of Mobile World Congress 2019, commercial 5G deployments are likely to be a 2020 event but as we know the networks, base stations, and backhaul capabilities will need to be installed ahead of those launches. To me, this strongly suggests that Dycom’s business will improve in the coming quarters, and as that happens, it’s bound to move down the cost curve as efficiencies and other aspects of higher utilization are had. For that reason, we are using last week’s 26% drop in DY shares to double our position size in DY shares on the Thematic Leader board. This will reduce our blended cost basis to roughly $64 from the prior $82. As we buy up the shares, I’m also resetting our price target on DY shares to $80, down from the prior $100, which offers significant upside from the current share price and our blended cost basis.

If you’re having second thoughts on this decision, think of it this way – doesn’t it seem rather strange that DY shares would fall by such a degree given the coming buildout that we know is going to occur over the coming quarters? If Dycom’s customers were some small, regional operators I would have some concerns, but that isn’t the case. These customers will build out those networks, and it means Dycom will be put to work in the coming quarters, generating revenue, profits, and cash flow along the way.

In last week’s Tematica Investing I dished on Warren Buffett’s latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) shareholders. In thinking about Dycom, another Buffett-ism comes to mind – “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.” Since this is a multi-quarter buildout for Dycom, we will need to be patient, but as we know for the famous encounter between the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

  • We are doubling down on Dycom (DY) shares on the Thematic Leader board and adjusting our price target to $80 from $100, which still offers significant upside from our new cost basis as the 5G and gigabit fiber buildout continues over the coming quarters.

 

As the pace of earnings slows, over the next few weeks I’ll not only be revisiting the recent 25% drop in Aging of the Population Thematic Leader AMN Healthcare to determine if we should make a similar move like the one we are doing with Dycom, but I’ll also be taking closer looks at wireless charging company Energous Corp. (WATT) and The Alkaline Water Company (WTER). Those two respectively fall under our Disruptive Innovators and Cleaner Living investing themes. Are they worthy of making it onto the Select List or bumping one of our Thematic Leaders? We’ll see…. And as I examine these two, I’m also pouring over some candidates to fill the Guilty Pleasure vacancy on the leader board.

 

Tematica Options+

One of the key takeaways over the last few issues has been the growing consumer spending headwind that has become increasingly evident across the December Retail Sales report, falling Personal Income data and increasing delinquencies. At the same time, we learned that despite mild December weather Home Depot (HD) missed earnings expectations and set the bar lower. Macy’s (M) reported uninspiring results and guidance while Nordstrom missed quarterly revenue expectations and L Brands (LB), the home of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body works.

Meanwhile, last week TJX Companies (TJX), the parent of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, and HomeSense, reported same-store comp sales of 6% for its most recent quarter as store traffic surged. The company also boosted its quarterly dividend by 18% and announced plans to upsize its share buyback plan to $1.75-$2.25 billion.

Quite a different story. Also last week, the Gap (GPS), a company that in my view has been lost for quite some time, announced it was splitting into two companies. One will house its Gap and Banana Republic lines, while Old Navy, a business that fits the mold of our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme, will stand on its own.

Then there is Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale, which has been simply taking consumer wallet share as it opens additional warehouse locations. Excluding the impact of gas prices and foreign exchange, Costco’s US same store sales climbed 7.1% year over year in December and 7.3% in January.

In my view, all of this sets up very well for solid earnings reports from both Ross Stores, which will issue those results after the market close on Tuesday (March 5), and Costco, which reports after the close on Thursday (March 7). To capture the upside associated with these reports, we will add the following call option positions:

 

Note the corresponding stop losses. These are tighter than usual because these are earnings related trades, and as we’ve seen of late guidance is as important as the rear-view quarterly results. These stops will help us limit that downside risk.

With regard to our Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) September 20, 2019, 10.00 calls (DFRG190920C00010000) and Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700), we will continue to hold them. The Del Frisco’s calls traded off last week and finished the week at 0.85, which is rather close to our 0.80 stop loss. This will bear watching and should we get stopped out, while we’ll net a 33% return should it happen soon than later, I may be inclined to jump back into a DFRG call position ahead of the company’s March 12 earnings report.

 

 

Weekly Issue: Factors making the stock market melt up a head-scratcher

Weekly Issue: Factors making the stock market melt up a head-scratcher

Key points inside this issue

  • Our long-term price target on Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50.
  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.

 

Reading the latest from the Oracle of Omaha

Over the weekend, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, released his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). This letter has become a must-read among institutional and individual investors alike because it not only reveals changes in Berkshire’s top investment portfolio positions, but it also has contained ample comments on the economy and markets as well as an investing lesson or two.

Out of the gate, we learned that once again Team Buffett outperformed the major stock market indices in 2018. As Buffett got underway, he casually reminded readers to be buyers of “ably managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. While it may seem somewhat self-serving this sounds very much like our thematic investing strategy that looks to identify companies benefitting from structural economic, demographic, psychographic and technological changes at prices that offer commanding upside vs. potential downside.

In the past, Buffett has commented that stocks are akin to pieces of paper and it’s the businesses behind them that are the drivers of revenue and profits. It’s an idea we are very much in tune with as we view ourselves as buyers of thematically well-positioned business first, their shares second. No matter how attractive a stock’s price may be, if its business is troubled or facing thematic headwinds, it can be a tough pill to swallow.

As Buffett later noted, “On occasion, a ridiculously high purchase price for a given stock will cause a splendid business to become a poor investment — if not permanently, at least for a painfully long period.” I certainly agree with that statement because buying a stock at the wrong price can make for a painful experience. There are times, to be patient, but there are also times when the thesis behind owning a stock changes. In those times, it makes far more sense to cut bait in favor of better-positioned companies.

Buffett then shared that “prices are sky-high for businesses possessing decent long- term prospects,” which is something we’ve commented on several times in recent weeks as the stock market continued to melt up even as earnings expectations for the near term have moved lower. We’ll continue to take the advice of Buffett and focus on “calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price,” for much like Buffett and his team work for Berkshire shareholders, Tematica and I work for you, our subscribers.

Mixed in among the rest of the letter are some on Buffett’s investing history, which is always an informative read, and a quick mention that “At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders” and that it continues to “hope for an elephant-sized acquisition.” While I can’t speak to any acquisition, especially after the debacle that is now recognized as Kraft Heinz (KHC), the focus on investing across borders potentially speaks to our New Global Middle-class and Living the Life investing themes. Given Buffett’s style, I suspect Team Buffett is more likely to tap into the rising middle-class over luxury and travel.

Several times Buffett touched on his age, 88 years, as well as that of its key partner Charlie Munger, who is 95. There was no meaningful revelation on how they plan to transition the management team, but odds are that will be a topic of conversation, as will Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC) at the annual shareholder meeting that is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. More details on that can be found at the bottom of the 2018 shareholder letter.

If I had to describe the overall letter, it was a very solid one, but candidly not one of the more memorable ones. Perhaps that reflects 2018 as a whole, a year in which all major market indices fell into the red during the last quarter of the year, and a current environment that is characterized by slowing global growth.

 

More signs that the domestic economy is a-slowin’

In recent issues of Tematica Investing and in the recent Context & Perspectives pieces penned by Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins, we’ve shared how even though the U.S. economy looks like the best one on the global block, it is showing signs of slowing. We had further confirmation of that in the recent December Retail Sales Report as well as the January Industrial Production data that showed a drop in manufacturing activity. The December Durable Orders report that showed orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft dropped 0.7% added further confirmation. Moreover, the report showed a downward November revision for the category to a fall of 1.0% vs. the prior 0.6% decline.

Much the way we focus on the order data inside the monthly ISM and IHS Markit PMI reports, the order data contained inside the monthly Durable Orders report gives us a sense of what is likely to come in near-term. These declining orders combined with the January declines in Industrial Production suggest slack is growing in the manufacturing economy, which means orders for new production equipment are likely to remain soft in the near-term. 

This past Monday we received another set of data that point to a slowing U.S. economy. We learned the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) fell to -0.43 in January from +0.05 in December. This index tracks 85 indicators; we’d note that in January, 35 of those indicators made positive contributions to the index, but that 50 made negative contributions, which produced the month-over-month decline.

Before we get all nervous over that negative January reading for the CFNAI, periods of economic expansion have been associated with index values above -0.70, which means the economy continued to expand in January, just at a much slower pace compared to December. Should the CFNAI reading fall below -0.70 in February or another coming month, it would signal a contraction in the domestic economy.

In response, Buffett likely would say that he and the team will continue to manage the portfolio for the long term, and that’s very much in sync with our thematic investing time frame.

 

Watch those dividends… for increases and for cuts!

Ahead of Buffett’s shareholder letter, shares of Kraft Heinz (KHC) tumbled in a  pronounced manner following several announcements, one of which included the 35% cut in its quarterly dividend to $0.40 per share from $0.625 per share. That’s a huge disappointment given the commonplace expectation that a company is expected to pay its dividend in perpetuity. It can increase its dividend or from time to time declare a special dividend, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the cutting of a company’s dividend is a disaster its stock price. We’ve seen this when General Motors (GM) and General Electric (GE) cut their respective dividends and again last week when Kraft made a similar announcement.

Those three are rather high profile and well-owned stocks, but they aren’t the only ones that have cut quarterly dividend payments to their shareholders. In December, L Brands (LB), the company behind Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, clipped its annual dividend by 50% to $1.20 per share from $2.40 per share and its shares dropped from $35 to $24 before rebounding modestly. On the company’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call, management of Century Link (CTL)  disclosed it would be cutting the telecom service provider’s annual dividend from $2.16 to $1.00 per share. Earlier this month, postal meter and office equipment company Pitney Bowes (PBI) declared a quarterly dividend of $0.05 per share, more than 73% fall from the prior dividend of $0.1875 per share. Other dividend cuts in recent weeks were had at Owens & Minor (OMI), Manning & Napier (MN), Unique Fabricating (UFAB), County Bancorp (ICBK), and Fresh Del Monte (FDP).

What the majority of these dividend cuts have in common is a challenged business, and in some cases like that for Pitney Bowes, the management team and Board have opted to carve out a new path for its capital allocation policy. For Pitney, it means shifting the mix to favor its share buyback program over dividends given the additional $100 million authorization that was announced which upsized its program to $121 million.

As I see it, there are several lessons to be had from these dividends:

One, outsized dividend yields as was the case back in September with L Brands can signal an opportunity for dividend income-seeking investors, but it can also represent a warning sign as investors exit shares in businesses that look to have operating and/or cash flow pressures.

This means that Two, we as investors always need to do the homework to determine what the prospects for the company’s business. As we discussed above, Buffett’s latest shareholder letter reminds investors to be buyers of “ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. Through our thematic lens, it’s no surprise that L Brands and Pitney Bowes are hitting the headwinds of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, while Kraft Heinz is in the grips of the consumer shift to Cleaner Living. Perhaps Kraft should have focused on something other than cost cuts to grow its bottom line.

Third, investors make mistakes and as we saw with the plummet in the share price at Kraft Heinz, it can happen to Buffett as well. There’s no shame in making a mistake, so long as we can learn from it.

Fourth and perhaps most important, while some may look at the growing number of dividend cuts on a company by company basis, if we look at them in aggregate the pace is greater than the number of such cuts, we saw in all of 2018. While we try not to overly excited one way or another, the pace of dividend cuts is likely to spur questions over the economy and where we are in the business cycle.

 

Putting it all together

As we move into March, more than 90% of the S&P 500 group of companies will have reported their quarterly results. As those results have been increasingly tallied over the last few weeks, we’ve seen EPS expectations move lower for the coming quarters and as of Friday’ stock market close the consensus view is 2019 EPS growth for the S&P 500 will be around 4.7%. That is significantly lower than the more than 11% EPS growth that was forecasted back at the start of the December quarter.

For those keeping score, the consensus for the current quarter points to a 2% growth rate. However, we’re starting to see more analysts cut their outlooks as more figures are reported. For example, JPMorgan (JPM) now sees the current quarter clocking in at 1.5% due to slower business investment spending. For now, JP sees a pick-up in the June quarter to a 2.25% forecast. But in our view, this will hinge on what we see in the coming order data.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as has moved higher over the last 9 weeks, marking one of the best runs it has had in more than 20 years, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Sounds like a disconnect in the making to me.

Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but as I’ve been saying for some time, measuring the success of any trade agreement will hinge on the details. Should it fail to live up to expectations, which is a distinct possibility, we could very well see a “buy the rumor, sell the news” situation arise in the stock market.

We will continue to tread carefully in the near-term, especially given the likelihood that following the disappointing December Retail Sales report and consumer-facing data, retailers are likely to deliver underwhelming quarterly results. Despite favorable weather in December, we saw that yesterday with Home Depot (HD),  and historically it’s been a pretty good yardstick for the consumer. In all likelihood as the remaining 10% of the S&P 500 companies report, we’re going to see further negative revisions to that current 4.7% EPS growth rate for this year I talked about.

 

Tematica Investing

A few paragraphs above, I touched on the strength of the stock market thus far in 2019, and even though concerns are mounting, we have seen pronounced moves higher in a number of the Thematic Leaders as you can see in the chart below. We’ll continue to monitor the changing landscapes and what they may bring. For example, in the coming weeks both Apple and Disney (DIS) are expected to unveil their respective streaming services, and I’ll be listening closely for to determine what this means for Digital Lifestyle leader Netflix (NFLX).

Nokia and Mobile World Congress 2019

We are two days into Mobile World Congress 2019, arguably THE mobile industry event of the year and one to watch for our Digital Lifestyle, Digital Infrastructure, and Disruptive Innovator themes. Thus far, we’ve received a number of different device and network announcements from the event.

On the device side, more 5G capable handsets have been announced as well as a number of foldable smartphones that appear to be a hybrid between a large format smartphone and a tablet. Those foldable smartphones are sporting some hefty price tags as evidenced by the $2,600 one for Huawei’s model. Interesting, but given the size of the device as well as the price point, one has to question if this is a commercially viable product or simply a concept one. Given the pushback that we are seeing with big-ticket smartphones that is resulting in consumers not upgrading their smartphones as quickly as they have in the past, odds are some of these device announcements fall more into the concept category.

On the network side, the news to center on comes from Verizon (VZ), which said it expects to have its 5G network in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019. That’s hardly what one would call a vibrant, national 5G network, and makes those commercial 5G launches really a 2020 event for the mobile carriers and consumers. It does mean that over the next several quarters, those mobile operators will continue to build out their 5G networks, which is positive for our shares of Nokia (NOK). As the 5G buildout moves beyond the U.S. into Europe and Asia, this tailwind bodes rather well for the company and helps back its longer-term targets. 

This 5G timetable was also confirmed by comments from Intel (INTC) about the timing of 5G chipsets, which are now expected to be available by the end of 2019 and are not likely to hit devices until 2020. Given the timing of CES in early January and the Mobile World Congress 2020 in February, odds are it means we will see a number of device announcements in early 2020 that will hit shelves in the second half of the year. Many have been wondering when Apple (AAPL) will have a 5G powered iPhone, and based on the various chipset and network comments, odds are the first time we’ll hear about such a device is September-October 2020. 

If history is to be repeated, we are likely to see something similar to what we saw with the first 3G and 4G handsets. By that, we mean a poor consumer experience at least until the 5G networks are truly national in scale and the chipsets become more efficient. One of the issues with each additional layer of mobile technology is it requires additional radio frequency (RF) chips, which in turn not only consume more power but also present internal design issues that out of the gate could limit the size of the battery. Generally speaking, early versions of these new smartphones tend to have less than desirable up-times. This is another reason to think Apple will not be one of those out of the gate 5G smartphone companies, but rather it will repeat its past strategy of bringing its product to market at the tipping point for the chipsets and network deployments. 

Circling back to our Nokia shares, while there are just over a handful of 5G smartphones that have been announced, some of which are expected to become available later this year, over the coming 18 months we will see a far greater number of 5G devices. This should drive Nokia’s high margin, IP licensing business in the coming quarters. As this occurs, Nokia’s mobile infrastructure should continue to benefit from the growing number of 5G networks being built out, not only here in the US but elsewhere as well.

  • Our long-term price target on Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50

 

Universal Display shares get lit up

Last week I previewed the upcoming earnings report from Select List resident Universal Display (OLED) and following that news the shares were off with a bang! Universal posted earnings of $0.40 per share, $0.08 per share better than the consensus expectations, on revenue that matched the Wall Street consensus of $70 million. Considering the tone of the smartphone market, I view the company’s quarterly results as “not as bad a feared” and, no surprise, the guidance reflects the continued adoption of organic light-emitting displays across a growing number of devices and vendors. For the current year, Universal has guided revenue to $325 million-$350 million, which is likely to be a step function higher as we move through the coming quarters reflecting the traditional year-end debut of new smartphones, TVs and other devices.

Longer-term, we know Apple (AAPL) and others are looking to migrate more of their product portfolios to organic light-emitting diode displays. This shift will drive capacity increases in the coming several quarters — and recent reports on China’s next round of display investing seems to confirm this happening per its latest Five-Year Plan. As we have seen in the past, this can lead to periods of oversupply and pricing issues for the displays, but the longer-term path as witnessed with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is one of greater adoption. 

As display pricing improves as capacity grows, new applications for the technology tend to arise. Remember that while we are focused on smartphones and TVs in the near-term, other applications include automotive lighting and general lighting. Again, just like we saw with LEDs.

  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.

 

 

Weekly Issue: Favorable signposts have us adding a call option position

Weekly Issue: Favorable signposts have us adding a call option position

Key points inside this issue

  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.
  • We are issuing a Buy on and adding the Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700) that closed last night at 0.38 to the Options+ Select List with 0.20 stop loss.
  • We will continue to hold the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) September 20, 2019, 10.00 calls (DFRG190920C00010000) that closed last night at 1.00, but we will boost our stop loss to 0.80, which will ensure a minimum return of 33% based on our 0.60 entry point.

 

Reading the latest from the Oracle of Omaha

Over the weekend, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, released his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). This letter has become a must-read among institutional and individual investors alike because it not only reveals changes in Berkshire’s top investment portfolio positions, but it also has contained ample comments on the economy and markets as well as an investing lesson or two.

Out of the gate, we learned that once again Team Buffett outperformed the major stock market indices in 2018. As Buffett got underway, he casually reminded readers to be buyers of “ably managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. While it may seem somewhat self-serving this sounds very much like our thematic investing strategy that looks to identify companies benefitting from structural economic, demographic, psychographic and technological changes at prices that offer commanding upside vs. potential downside.

In the past, Buffett has commented that stocks are akin to pieces of paper and it’s the businesses behind them that are the drivers of revenue and profits. It’s an idea we are very much in tune with as we view ourselves as buyers of thematically well-positioned business first, their shares second. No matter how attractive a stock’s price may be, if its business is troubled or facing thematic headwinds, it can be a tough pill to swallow.

As Buffett later noted, “On occasion, a ridiculously high purchase price for a given stock will cause a splendid business to become a poor investment — if not permanently, at least for a painfully long period.” I certainly agree with that statement because buying a stock at the wrong price can make for a painful experience. There are times, to be patient, but there are also times when the thesis behind owning a stock changes. In those times, it makes far more sense to cut bait in favor of better-positioned companies.

Buffett then shared that “prices are sky-high for businesses possessing decent long- term prospects,” which is something we’ve commented on several times in recent weeks as the stock market continued to melt up even as earnings expectations for the near term have moved lower. We’ll continue to take the advice of Buffett and focus on “calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price,” for much like Buffett and his team work for Berkshire shareholders, Tematica and I work for you, our subscribers.

Mixed in among the rest of the letter are some on Buffett’s investing history, which is always an informative read, and a quick mention that “At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders” and that it continues to “hope for an elephant-sized acquisition.” While I can’t speak to any acquisition, especially after the debacle that is now recognized as Kraft Heinz (KHC), the focus on investing across borders potentially speaks to our New Global Middle-class and Living the Life investing themes. Given Buffett’s style, I suspect Team Buffett is more likely to tap into the rising middle-class over luxury and travel.

Several times Buffett touched on his age, 88 years, as well as that of its key partner Charlie Munger, who is 95. There was no meaningful revelation on how they plan to transition the management team, but odds are that will be a topic of conversation, as will Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC) at the annual shareholder meeting that is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. More details on that can be found at the bottom of the 2018 shareholder letter.

If I had to describe the overall letter, it was a very solid one, but candidly not one of the more memorable ones. Perhaps that reflects 2018 as a whole, a year in which all major market indices fell into the red during the last quarter of the year, and a current environment that is characterized by slowing global growth.

 

More signs that the domestic economy is a-slowin’

In recent issues of Tematica Investing and in the recent Context & Perspectives pieces penned by Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins, we’ve shared how even though the U.S. economy looks like the best one on the global block, it is showing signs of slowing. We had further confirmation of that in the recent December Retail Sales Report as well as the January Industrial Production data that showed a drop in manufacturing activity. The December Durable Orders report that showed orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft dropped 0.7% added further confirmation. Moreover, the report showed a downward November revision for the category to a fall of 1.0% vs. the prior 0.6% decline.

Much the way we focus on the order data inside the monthly ISM and IHS Markit PMI reports, the order data contained inside the monthly Durable Orders report gives us a sense of what is likely to come in near-term. These declining orders combined with the January declines in Industrial Production suggest slack is growing in the manufacturing economy, which means orders for new production equipment are likely to remain soft in the near-term. 

This past Monday we received another set of data that point to a slowing U.S. economy. We learned the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) fell to -0.43 in January from +0.05 in December. This index tracks 85 indicators; we’d note that in January, 35 of those indicators made positive contributions to the index, but that 50 made negative contributions, which produced the month-over-month decline.

Before we get all nervous over that negative January reading for the CFNAI, periods of economic expansion have been associated with index values above -0.70, which means the economy continued to expand in January, just at a much slower pace compared to December. Should the CFNAI reading fall below -0.70 in February or another coming month, it would signal a contraction in the domestic economy.

In response, Buffett likely would say that he and the team will continue to manage the portfolio for the long term, and that’s very much in sync with our thematic investing time frame.

 

Watch those dividends… for increases and for cuts!

Ahead of Buffett’s shareholder letter, shares of Kraft Heinz (KHC) tumbled in a  pronounced manner following several announcements, one of which included the 35% cut in its quarterly dividend to $0.40 per share from $0.625 per share. That’s a huge disappointment given the commonplace expectation that a company is expected to pay its dividend in perpetuity. It can increase its dividend or from time to time declare a special dividend, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the cutting of a company’s dividend is a disaster its stock price. We’ve seen this when General Motors (GM) and General Electric (GE) cut their respective dividends and again last week when Kraft made a similar announcement.

Those three are rather high profile and well-owned stocks, but they aren’t the only ones that have cut quarterly dividend payments to their shareholders. In December, L Brands (LB), the company behind Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, clipped its annual dividend by 50% to $1.20 per share from $2.40 per share and its shares dropped from $35 to $24 before rebounding modestly. On the company’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call, management of Century Link (CTL)  disclosed it would be cutting the telecom service provider’s annual dividend from $2.16 to $1.00 per share. Earlier this month, postal meter and office equipment company Pitney Bowes (PBI) declared a quarterly dividend of $0.05 per share, more than 73% fall from the prior dividend of $0.1875 per share. Other dividend cuts in recent weeks were had at Owens & Minor (OMI), Manning & Napier (MN), Unique Fabricating (UFAB), County Bancorp (ICBK), and Fresh Del Monte (FDP).

What the majority of these dividend cuts have in common is a challenged business, and in some cases like that for Pitney Bowes, the management team and Board have opted to carve out a new path for its capital allocation policy. For Pitney, it means shifting the mix to favor its share buyback program over dividends given the additional $100 million authorization that was announced which upsized its program to $121 million.

As I see it, there are several lessons to be had from these dividends:

One, outsized dividend yields as was the case back in September with L Brands can signal an opportunity for dividend income-seeking investors, but it can also represent a warning sign as investors exit shares in businesses that look to have operating and/or cash flow pressures.

This means that Two, we as investors always need to do the homework to determine what the prospects for the company’s business. As we discussed above, Buffett’s latest shareholder letter reminds investors to be buyers of “ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics” and to do so at sensible prices. Through our thematic lens, it’s no surprise that L Brands and Pitney Bowes are hitting the headwinds of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, while Kraft Heinz is in the grips of the consumer shift to Cleaner Living. Perhaps Kraft should have focused on something other than cost cuts to grow its bottom line.

Third, investors make mistakes and as we saw with the plummet in the share price at Kraft Heinz, it can happen to Buffett as well. There’s no shame in making a mistake, so long as we can learn from it.

Fourth and perhaps most important, while some may look at the growing number of dividend cuts on a company by company basis, if we look at them in aggregate the pace is greater than the number of such cuts, we saw in all of 2018. While we try not to overly excited one way or another, the pace of dividend cuts is likely to spur questions over the economy and where we are in the business cycle.

 

Putting it all together

As we move into March, more than 90% of the S&P 500 group of companies will have reported their quarterly results. As those results have been increasingly tallied over the last few weeks, we’ve seen EPS expectations move lower for the coming quarters and as of Friday’ stock market close the consensus view is 2019 EPS growth for the S&P 500 will be around 4.7%. That is significantly lower than the more than 11% EPS growth that was forecasted back at the start of the December quarter.

For those keeping score, the consensus for the current quarter points to a 2% growth rate. However, we’re starting to see more analysts cut their outlooks as more figures are reported. For example, JPMorgan (JPM) now sees the current quarter clocking in at 1.5% due to slower business investment spending. For now, JP sees a pick-up in the June quarter to a 2.25% forecast. But in our view, this will hinge on what we see in the coming order data.

Putting it all together, we have a slowing economy, EPS cuts that are making the stock market incrementally more expensive as has moved higher over the last 9 weeks, marking one of the best runs it has had in more than 20 years, and a growing number of dividend cuts. Sounds like a disconnect in the making to me.

Clearly, the stock market has been melting up over the last several weeks on increasing hopes over a favorable trade deal with China, but as I’ve been saying for some time, measuring the success of any trade agreement will hinge on the details. Should it fail to live up to expectations, which is a distinct possibility, we could very well see a “buy the rumor, sell the news” situation arise in the stock market.

We will continue to tread carefully in the near-term, especially given the likelihood that following the disappointing December Retail Sales report and consumer-facing data, retailers are likely to deliver underwhelming quarterly results. Despite favorable weather in December, we saw that yesterday with Home Depot (HD),  and historically it’s been a pretty good yardstick for the consumer. In all likelihood as the remaining 10% of the S&P 500 companies report, we’re going to see further negative revisions to that current 4.7% EPS growth rate for this year I talked about.

 

Tematica Investing

A few paragraphs above, I touched on the strength of the stock market thus far in 2019, and even though concerns are mounting, we have seen pronounced moves higher in a number of the Thematic Leaders as you can see in the chart below. We’ll continue to monitor the changing landscapes and what they may bring. For example, in the coming weeks both Apple and Disney (DIS) are expected to unveil their respective streaming services, and I’ll be listening closely for to determine what this means for Digital Lifestyle leader Netflix (NFLX).

Nokia and Mobile World Congress 2019

We are two days into Mobile World Congress 2019, arguably THE mobile industry event of the year and one to watch for our Digital Lifestyle, Digital Infrastructure, and Disruptive Innovator themes. Thus far, we’ve received a number of different device and network announcements from the event.

On the device side, more 5G capable handsets have been announced as well as a number of foldable smartphones that appear to be a hybrid between a large format smartphone and a tablet. Those foldable smartphones are sporting some hefty price tags as evidenced by the $2,600 one for Huawei’s model. Interesting, but given the size of the device as well as the price point, one has to question if this is a commercially viable product or simply a concept one. Given the pushback that we are seeing with big-ticket smartphones that is resulting in consumers not upgrading their smartphones as quickly as they have in the past, odds are some of these device announcements fall more into the concept category.

On the network side, the news to center on comes from Verizon (VZ), which said it expects to have its 5G network in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019. That’s hardly what one would call a vibrant, national 5G network, and makes those commercial 5G launches really a 2020 event for the mobile carriers and consumers. It does mean that over the next several quarters, those mobile operators will continue to build out their 5G networks, which is positive for our shares of Nokia (NOK). As the 5G buildout moves beyond the U.S. into Europe and Asia, this tailwind bodes rather well for the company and helps back its longer-term targets. 

This 5G timetable was also confirmed by comments from Intel (INTC) about the timing of 5G chipsets, which are now expected to be available by the end of 2019 and are not likely to hit devices until 2020. Given the timing of CES in early January and the Mobile World Congress 2020 in February, odds are it means we will see a number of device announcements in early 2020 that will hit shelves in the second half of the year. Many have been wondering when Apple (AAPL) will have a 5G powered iPhone, and based on the various chipset and network comments, odds are the first time we’ll hear about such a device is September-October 2020. 

If history is to be repeated, we are likely to see something similar to what we saw with the first 3G and 4G handsets. By that, we mean a poor consumer experience at least until the 5G networks are truly national in scale and the chipsets become more efficient. One of the issues with each additional layer of mobile technology is it requires additional radio frequency (RF) chips, which in turn not only consume more power but also present internal design issues that out of the gate could limit the size of the battery. Generally speaking, early versions of these new smartphones tend to have less than desirable up-times. This is another reason to think Apple will not be one of those out of the gate 5G smartphone companies, but rather it will repeat its past strategy of bringing its product to market at the tipping point for the chipsets and network deployments. 

Circling back to our Nokia shares, while there are just over a handful of 5G smartphones that have been announced, some of which are expected to become available later this year, over the coming 18 months we will see a far greater number of 5G devices. This should drive Nokia’s high margin, IP licensing business in the coming quarters. As this occurs, Nokia’s mobile infrastructure should continue to benefit from the growing number of 5G networks being built out, not only here in the US but elsewhere as well.

  • Our long-term price target on Disruptive Innovator leader Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50

 

Universal Display shares get lit up

Last week I previewed the upcoming earnings report from Select List resident Universal Display (OLED) and following that news the shares were off with a bang! Universal posted earnings of $0.40 per share, $0.08 per share better than the consensus expectations, on revenue that matched the Wall Street consensus of $70 million. Considering the tone of the smartphone market, I view the company’s quarterly results as “not as bad a feared” and, no surprise, the guidance reflects the continued adoption of organic light-emitting displays across a growing number of devices and vendors. For the current year, Universal has guided revenue to $325 million-$350 million, which is likely to be a step function higher as we move through the coming quarters reflecting the traditional year-end debut of new smartphones, TVs and other devices.

Longer-term, we know Apple (AAPL) and others are looking to migrate more of their product portfolios to organic light-emitting diode displays. This shift will drive capacity increases in the coming several quarters — and recent reports on China’s next round of display investing seems to confirm this happening per its latest Five-Year Plan. As we have seen in the past, this can lead to periods of oversupply and pricing issues for the displays, but the longer-term path as witnessed with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is one of greater adoption. 

As display pricing improves as capacity grows, new applications for the technology tend to arise. Remember that while we are focused on smartphones and TVs in the near-term, other applications include automotive lighting and general lighting. Again, just like we saw with LEDs.

  • We will continue to be long-term shareholders with Disruptive Innovator Select List resident Universal Display (OLED). Given the improving outlooks, our near-term price target for OLED shares is getting lifted to $150 from $125, and I will revisit that target as we move through the balance of 2019.

 

Tematica Options+

It would have been wonderful to have been long Universal Display (OLED) calls, but again given what we’ve heard in recent weeks about the tone of the smartphone market, its results were far more “not as bad as feared” and I suspect in the short-term drove a fair amount of short covering. I still like the long-term prospects for the adoption of the technology, and it’s something to watch as adoption heats up.

By comparison, after months of what seemed like modest forward progress coming out of Mobile World Congress, the pace of 5G is about to get into gear from both a device and network perspective. As we move through 2019, that pace is poised to accelerate even further, which should bring favorable operating leverage to both businesses tucked inside Nokia.

For that reason, I am adding the Nokia Corp. (NOK) December 2019 7.00 calls (NOK191220C0000700) that closed last night at 0.38 to the Options+ Select List. The duration should capture that expected swell in 5G activity, and as we move through the coming months, I’ll consider a layered strategy that could include adding 2020 calls to the mix. Given the time span, we’ll set a wider stop loss berth than usual at 0.20.

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Companies continue to serve up weaker guidance

WEEKLY ISSUE: Companies continue to serve up weaker guidance

Key points inside this issue

  • The outlook for earnings continues to wane even as the trade-related market melt-up continues.
  • Our price target on Amazon (AMZN) shares remains $2,250.
  • Our price target on Alphabet (GOOGL) shares remains$1,300.
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares remains $250.
  • Our price target on Universal Display (OLED) shares remains $125.
  • Our price target on Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50

 

The outlook for earnings continues to wane even as the trade-related market melt-up continues

Domestic stocks continued to trend higher last week as the December-quarter issues that plagued them continued to be dialed back. Said another way, the expected concerns — the Fed, the economy, the government shutdown, geopolitical issues in the eurozone, and U.S.-China trade talks — haven’t been as bad as feared a few months ago.

In recent weeks, we have seen the Fed take a more dovish approach and last week’s data, which included benign inflation numbers and fresh concerns over the speed of the economy following the headline December Retail Sales Report and Friday’s manufacturing-led contraction in the January Industrial Production Index, reaffirm the central bank is likely to stand pat on interest rate hikes. We see both of those reports, however, feeding worries over increasing debt-laden consumers and a slowing U.S. economy. 

Granted, economic data from around the globe suggest the U.S. economy remains one of the more vibrant ones on a relative basis, which also helps explain both the melt-up in both the domestic stock market as well as the dollar. On Thursday we learned that economic growth in the eurozone was basically flat on a sequential basis in the December quarter, rising a meager 0.2%. Year-over-year growth stood at just 1.2% for the final quarter of 2018. This came after news that the eurozone economic powerhouse that is Germany had no growth itself in the fourth quarter after a contraction of 0.2% in the third quarter. Italy experienced its second consecutive quarter of economic contraction, putting it in a technical recession.

 

All of this put further downward pressure on the euro versus the U.S. dollar, which means dollar headwinds remain for multinational companies. And we still have another major headwind that is the lack of any Brexit deal. With three pro-EU Conservatives having resigned this morning from Prime Minister Theresa May’s party to join a new group in Parliament, there is no an even slimmer chance of Brexit deal being put in place ahead of next week.

So, what has been fueling the rebound in the stock market?

Among other factors, the deal to avoid another federal government shutdown, which was followed by the “national emergency” declaration that will potentially give President Trump access to roughly $8 billion to fund a border wall. We’ll see how this all plays out in the coming days, alongside the next step in U.S.-China trade talks that are being held this week in Washington. While “much work remains” on the working Memorandum of Understanding, trade discussions last week focused on several of the larger structural issues that we’ve been more concerned about — forced technology transfer, intellectual property rights, cyber theft, and currency.

Early this morning, it’s being reported that President Trump is softening on the March 1 phase in date for the next round of tariff increases, which is likely to give the market some additional trade optimism and see it move higher. We remain hopeful, but we expect there to be several additional steps to go that will set the stage for any final agreement that will likely be consummated at a meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi. And yes, the final details will matter and will determine if we get a “buy the rumor, sell the news” event.

Even as the trade war continues at least for now, we continue to see companies positioning themselves for the tailwinds associated with Living the Life and New Global Middle-class investing theme opportunities to be had in China. If you missed a recent Thematic Signal discussing how Hilton (HLT) is doing just that, you can find it here.

And then there are earnings

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been tracking and sharing the declining outlook for S&P 500 earnings for 2019. As we closed last week, roughly 80% of the S&P 500 companies had reported their quarterly earnings and issued outlooks. In aggregating the data, the new consensus calls for a 2.2% year-over-year decline in earnings for the current quarter, low single-digit earnings growth in the June and September quarters, and 9.1% growth in the December quarter. In full, the S&P 500 group of companies are now expected to grow their collective 2019 EPS by 5% to $169.53, which means that as those expectations have fallen over the last several months, the 2019 move in the market has made the stock market that much more expensive.

In my view, we are once again seeing a potentially optimistic perspective on earnings for the second half of the year. While a U.S.-China trade deal and infrastructure spending bill could very well lead to a better second half of 2019 from an earnings perspective, the unknown remains the vector and velocity of the rest of the global economy.  As discussed above, the US is looking like the best house on the economic block, but as I share below there are valid reasons to think that it too continues to slow.

 

Last week I touched on a Thematic Signal about the record level of auto loan delinquencies, and in the last few days, we’ve learned that student-loan delinquencies surged last year, hitting consecutive records of $166.3 billion in the September 2018 quarter and $166.4 billion in the December 2018 one. I’ve also noticed an uptick in credit-card delinquencies this past January as companies ranging from American Express (AXP) to JPMorgan (JPM) and other credit card issuers reported their monthly data. What I find really concerning is this record level of delinquencies is occurring even as the unemployment rate remains at multi-year lows, which suggests more consumers are seeing their disposable income pressured. While this isn’t a good sign for a consumer-led economy, it certainly confirms the tailwind associated with our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme.

 

Tematica Investing

 December Retail Sales shock some, confirm Costco and others

December Retail Sales have been published by the Commerce Department and to say the results were different than most were expecting is an understatement. And that’s even for those of us that were watching data of the kind I mentioned above.  Normally, holiday shopping tends to build as we close out the year, but according to the report, consumers pulled back in December as monthly retail sales fell 1.3% compared to November.

Yes, you read that right – they fell month over month, but as we know that is only one way to read the data. And while sequential comparisons are helpful, they do little to help us track year over year growth. From that perspective, retail sales in December 2018 rose 2.1% year over year with stronger gains registered at Clothing & Clothing Accessories Stores (+4.7%), Food Services & Drinking Places (+4.0%), Nonstore retailers (+3.7%) and Auto & other motor vehicles (+3.4%). That’s not to say there weren’t some sore spots in the report – there were, but there are also the ones that have been taking lumps for most of 2018. Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, & book stores fell 13% year over year in December, bringing the December quarter drop to 11% overall. Department Stores also took it on the chin in December as their retail sales fell 2.8% year over year. These declines are largely due to the accelerating shopping shift to digital from brick & mortar that are associated with our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Despite the headline weakness, I once again see the report as confirming for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) and to a lesser extent Select List resident Alphabet (GOOGL) given its Google shopping engine. Not only is Amazon benefiting from the accelerating shift to digital commerce, but also from its own private label efforts, which span basic electronic accessories to furniture and apparel. It goes without saying that comparing the December Retail Sales report with Costco Wholesale’s (COST) monthly same-store sales reports shows Costco continues to win consumer wallet share.

 

As a reminder, Costco’s December same-store sales rose 7.5% in December (7.1% excluding gasoline prices and foreign exchange) and 6.6% in January (7.3%). And it remains on path opening new warehouse locations with 768 exiting January, up 3.0% year over year. That should continue to spur the company’s high margin membership fee income in the coming quarters. My suspicion is others are catching onto this given the 7% increase in COST shares thus far in 2019, the vast majority of which has come in the last week. We’ll continue to hold ‘em.

  • Our price target on Amazon (AMZN) shares remains $2,250.
  • Our price target on Alphabet (GOOGL) shares remains $1,300.
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares remains $250.

 

Turning to this week’s data

This week’s shortened trading week brings several additional key pieces of economic data. And following the disappointing December Retail Sales report, these reports are bound to be closely scrutinized as the investment community looks to home in on the speed of the domestic economy. 

In addition to weekly mortgage applications, and oil and natural gas inventory data, tomorrow we’ll also get the December Durable Orders report and January Existing Home sales data. Given the drop-off in mortgage applications of late as well as weather issues, it’s hard to imagine a dramatic pick-up in the housing data since the end of 2018. Rounding out the economic data will be our first February look at the economy with the Philly Fed Index.

 Speaking of the Fed, today we’ll see the release of the Fed’s FOMC minutes from its January meeting. Considering the comments emanating from Fed heads lately as well as the lack of inflation in the January CPI and PPI data, there should be few surprises in terms of potential interest rate hikes in the near term. The looming question is the speed at which the Fed will normalize its balance sheet, which likely means that will be an area of focus as investors parse those minutes.

 

Here come Universal Display and Mobile World Congress 2019

As long as we’re looking at calendars, after Thursday’s market close Select List resident Universal Display (OLED) will report its quarterly results. To say the shares have found some legs in 2019 would be a bit of an understatement given their resurgence over the last several weeks.

 

We know Digital Lifestyle Select List company Apple (AAPL) has shared its plans to convert all of its iPhone models to organic light emitting diode displays by 2020, and that keeps us in the long-term game with OLED shares. Given the current tone of the smartphone market, however, we could see Universal Display serve up softer than expected guidance.

We’ll continue to hold OLED shares for the duration and look for signs that other device companies, including other smartphone vendors but other devices as well, are making the shift to organic light emitting diodes next week during Mobile World Congress 2019 (Feb. 25-28). The event is a premier one mobile industry as it tends to showcase new devices and technologies, and as you might imagine means a number of announcements. This means it’s not only one to watch for organic light emitting diode adoptions, but we are also likely to see much news on 5G virtual reality and augmented reality, key aspects of our Disruptive Innovators investing theme, as well. And with 5G in mind, we could very well hear of more 5G network launches as well, which means keeping my Nokia (NOK) and Digital Infrastructure ears open as well as my Digital Lifestyle ones.

  • Our price target on Universal Display (OLED) shares remains $125.
  • Our price target on Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50.

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Reversing Course on Lending Club Calls

WEEKLY ISSUE: Reversing Course on Lending Club Calls

Key points inside this issue

The outlook for earnings continues to wane even as the trade-related market melt-up continues

Domestic stocks continued to trend higher last week as the December-quarter issues that plagued them continued to be dialed back. Said another way, the expected concerns — the Fed, the economy, the government shutdown, geopolitical issues in the eurozone, and U.S.-China trade talks — haven’t been as bad as feared a few months ago.

In recent weeks, we have seen the Fed take a more dovish approach and last week’s data, which included benign inflation numbers and fresh concerns over the speed of the economy following the headline December Retail Sales Report and Friday’s manufacturing-led contraction in the January Industrial Production Index, reaffirm the central bank is likely to stand pat on interest rate hikes. We see both of those reports, however, feeding worries over increasing debt-laden consumers and a slowing U.S. economy. 

Granted, economic data from around the globe suggest the U.S. economy remains one of the more vibrant ones on a relative basis, which also helps explain both the melt-up in both the domestic stock market as well as the dollar. On Thursday we learned that economic growth in the eurozone was basically flat on a sequential basis in the December quarter, rising a meager 0.2%. Year-over-year growth stood at just 1.2% for the final quarter of 2018. This came after news that the eurozone economic powerhouse that is Germany had no growth itself in the fourth quarter after a contraction of 0.2% in the third quarter. Italy experienced its second consecutive quarter of economic contraction, putting it in a technical recession.

 

All of this put further downward pressure on the euro versus the U.S. dollar, which means dollar headwinds remain for multinational companies. And we still have another major headwind that is the lack of any Brexit deal. With three pro-EU Conservatives having resigned this morning from Prime Minister Theresa May’s party to join a new group in Parliament, there is no an even slimmer chance of Brexit deal being put in place ahead of next week.

So, what has been fueling the rebound in the stock market?

Among other factors, the deal to avoid another federal government shutdown, which was followed by the “national emergency” declaration that will potentially give President Trump access to roughly $8 billion to fund a border wall. We’ll see how this all plays out in the coming days, alongside the next step in U.S.-China trade talks that are being held this week in Washington. While “much work remains” on the working Memorandum of Understanding, trade discussions last week focused on several of the larger structural issues that we’ve been more concerned about — forced technology transfer, intellectual property rights, cyber theft, and currency.

Early this morning, it’s being reported that President Trump is softening on the March 1 phase in date for the next round of tariff increases, which is likely to give the market some additional trade optimism and see it move higher. We remain hopeful, but we expect there to be several additional steps to go that will set the stage for any final agreement that will likely be consummated at a meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi. And yes, the final details will matter and will determine if we get a “buy the rumor, sell the news” event.

Even as the trade war continues at least for now, we continue to see companies positioning themselves for the tailwinds associated with Living the Life and New Global Middle-class investing theme opportunities to be had in China. If you missed a recent Thematic Signal discussing how Hilton (HLT) is doing just that, you can find it here.

And then there are earnings

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been tracking and sharing the declining outlook for S&P 500 earnings for 2019. As we closed last week, roughly 80% of the S&P 500 companies had reported their quarterly earnings and issued outlooks. In aggregating the data, the new consensus calls for a 2.2% year-over-year decline in earnings for the current quarter, low single-digit earnings growth in the June and September quarters, and 9.1% growth in the December quarter. In full, the S&P 500 group of companies are now expected to grow their collective 2019 EPS by 5% to $169.53, which means that as those expectations have fallen over the last several months, the 2019 move in the market has made the stock market that much more expensive.

In my view, we are once again seeing a potentially optimistic perspective on earnings for the second half of the year. While a U.S.-China trade deal and infrastructure spending bill could very well lead to a better second half of 2019 from an earnings perspective, the unknown remains the vector and velocity of the rest of the global economy.  As discussed above, the US is looking like the best house on the economic block, but as I share below there are valid reasons to think that it too continues to slow.

 

Last week I touched on a Thematic Signal about the record level of auto loan delinquencies, and in the last few days, we’ve learned that student-loan delinquencies surged last year, hitting consecutive records of $166.3 billion in the September 2018 quarter and $166.4 billion in the December 2018 one. I’ve also noticed an uptick in credit-card delinquencies this past January as companies ranging from American Express (AXP) to JPMorgan (JPM) and other credit card issuers reported their monthly data. What I find really concerning is this record level of delinquencies is occurring even as the unemployment rate remains at multi-year lows, which suggests more consumers are seeing their disposable income pressured. While this isn’t a good sign for a consumer-led economy, it certainly confirms the tailwind associated with our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme.

 

Tematica Investing

 December Retail Sales shock some, confirm Costco and others

December Retail Sales have been published by the Commerce Department and to say the results were different than most were expecting is an understatement. And that’s even for those of us that were watching data of the kind I mentioned above.  Normally, holiday shopping tends to build as we close out the year, but according to the report, consumers pulled back in December as monthly retail sales fell 1.3% compared to November.

Yes, you read that right – they fell month over month, but as we know that is only one way to read the data. And while sequential comparisons are helpful, they do little to help us track year over year growth. From that perspective, retail sales in December 2018 rose 2.1% year over year with stronger gains registered at Clothing & Clothing Accessories Stores (+4.7%), Food Services & Drinking Places (+4.0%), Nonstore retailers (+3.7%) and Auto & other motor vehicles (+3.4%). That’s not to say there weren’t some sore spots in the report – there were, but there are also the ones that have been taking lumps for most of 2018. Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, & book stores fell 13% year over year in December, bringing the December quarter drop to 11% overall. Department Stores also took it on the chin in December as their retail sales fell 2.8% year over year. These declines are largely due to the accelerating shopping shift to digital from brick & mortar that are associated with our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Despite the headline weakness, I once again see the report as confirming for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) and to a lesser extent Select List resident Alphabet (GOOGL) given its Google shopping engine. Not only is Amazon benefiting from the accelerating shift to digital commerce, but also from its own private label efforts, which span basic electronic accessories to furniture and apparel. It goes without saying that comparing the December Retail Sales report with Costco Wholesale’s (COST) monthly same-store sales reports shows Costco continues to win consumer wallet share.

 

As a reminder, Costco’s December same-store sales rose 7.5% in December (7.1% excluding gasoline prices and foreign exchange) and 6.6% in January (7.3%). And it remains on path opening new warehouse locations with 768 exiting January, up 3.0% year over year. That should continue to spur the company’s high margin membership fee income in the coming quarters. My suspicion is others are catching onto this given the 7% increase in COST shares thus far in 2019, the vast majority of which has come in the last week. We’ll continue to hold ‘em.

  • Our price target on Amazon (AMZN) shares remains $2,250.
  • Our price target on Alphabet (GOOGL) shares remains $1,300.
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares remains $250.

 

Turning to this week’s data

This week’s shortened trading week brings several additional key pieces of economic data. And following the disappointing December Retail Sales report, these reports are bound to be closely scrutinized as the investment community looks to home in on the speed of the domestic economy. 

In addition to weekly mortgage applications, and oil and natural gas inventory data, tomorrow we’ll also get the December Durable Orders report and January Existing Home sales data. Given the drop-off in mortgage applications of late as well as weather issues, it’s hard to imagine a dramatic pick-up in the housing data since the end of 2018. Rounding out the economic data will be our first February look at the economy with the Philly Fed Index.

 Speaking of the Fed, today we’ll see the release of the Fed’s FOMC minutes from its January meeting. Considering the comments emanating from Fed heads lately as well as the lack of inflation in the January CPI and PPI data, there should be few surprises in terms of potential interest rate hikes in the near term. The looming question is the speed at which the Fed will normalize its balance sheet, which likely means that will be an area of focus as investors parse those minutes.

 

Here come Universal Display and Mobile World Congress 2019

As long as we’re looking at calendars, after Thursday’s market close Select List resident Universal Display (OLED) will report its quarterly results. To say the shares have found some legs in 2019 would be a bit of an understatement given their resurgence over the last several weeks.

 

We know Digital Lifestyle Select List company Apple (AAPL) has shared its plans to convert all of its iPhone models to organic light emitting diode displays by 2020, and that keeps us in the long-term game with OLED shares. Given the current tone of the smartphone market, however, we could see Universal Display serve up softer than expected guidance.

We’ll continue to hold OLED shares for the duration and look for signs that other device companies, including other smartphone vendors but other devices as well, are making the shift to organic light emitting diodes next week during Mobile World Congress 2019 (Feb. 25-28). The event is a premier one mobile industry as it tends to showcase new devices and technologies, and as you might imagine means a number of announcements. This means it’s not only one to watch for organic light emitting diode adoptions, but we are also likely to see much news on 5G virtual reality and augmented reality, key aspects of our Disruptive Innovators investing theme, as well. And with 5G in mind, we could very well hear of more 5G network launches as well, which means keeping my Nokia (NOK) and Digital Infrastructure ears open as well as my Digital Lifestyle ones.

  • Our price target on Universal Display (OLED) shares remains $125.
  • Our price target on Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50.

 

Tematica Options+

Last week we added a Middle-class Squeeze position with Lending Club (LC) March 2019 4.00 calls (LC190315C0000400)to the Select List, and despite the move higher in recent days ahead of the company’s earnings report last night, the calls were little changed. While LendingClub reported a 35% increase in personal loan applications in 2018 to more than 14 million with double-digit growth in both loan volumes and revenue it served up softer than expected December quarter results and guided the first half of 2019 below expectations. It continues to expect positive earnings in 2019, but that’s not expected to happen now until the second half of the year.

Given the March strike data associated with the LendingClub calls, combined with last night’s developments, odds are the shares will not rebound in such time as to make it worth holding onto them. As such, we will look to limit our losses on the trade, shedding them today at market.

 

Del Frisco’s to report on March 12

Turning to the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) September 20, 2019, 10.00 calls (DFRG190920C00010000)that closed last night at 1.00, up more than 65% from our 0.60 entry point two weeks ago, the company has announced it will report its December quarter results on March 12. Because the company pre-announced it results in early January, the quarterly results won’t be much of a surprise. In my opinion, the company has stretched out its reporting timetable in order to evaluate potential bids. We know the company has beefed up its Board of late with an eye to maximizing a would be takeout transaction, and with ample private equity and corporate cash on the sidelines, odds are rather good that Del Frisco’s won’t be a stand-alone public company by this time next year.

 

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.