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

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

Key points inside this issue:

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

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

 

Apple’s 2019 iPhone event – more meh than wow

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

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

Not in my view. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

GameStop – It’s only going to get worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

California approves a bill that changes how contract workers are treated

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

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

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

 

Volkswagen set to disrupt the electric vehicle market

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

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

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

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

 

Verizon’s 5G in 30 US cities by end of 2019

Verizon’s 5G in 30 US cities by end of 2019

As we enter Mobile World Congress 2019, arguably the mobile event of the year, 5G network and device launch details are coming into greater focus. Verizon is taking the early lead in the US staking out 5G to 30 cities in the US by the end of 2019. Of course, 30 cities is hardly national coverage, which means a continued deployment for this aspect of our Digital Infrastructure investing theme well into 2020 at least for the US if not into 2021. Factor in the competitive response from AT&T and the soon to be combined T-Mobile USA and Sprint, and it means the likely tipping point for 5G is looking increasingly like the second half of 2020. From an iPhone perspective, even though Samsung and Motorola have announced they will have devices ready by mid-2019,  this 5G network timetable means we should not be expecting any 5G news from Apple this year, but rather its annual iPhone event in September-October of 2020.

Verizon on Thursday said it’s working on deploying 5G to some extent in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019, another hint that the technology won’t appear in iPhones until 2020.

The first parts of Verizon’s 5G network should be up by mid-2019 though, since the carrier is the exclusive launch partner for the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

AT&T and T-Mobile are also working on 5G deployments. Neither carrier is expected to get very far by the end of 2019 however, owing to partly to lags in equipment. There are also relatively few 5G-ready devices on the market, offering little incentive to speed up.

Multiple reports have pointed to Apple waiting until 2020 to ship 5G-capable iPhones. The company’s preferred modem maker, Intel, is unlikely to have a 5G chip ready until that timeframe.

Source: Verizon says 5G coming to 30 US cities by end of 2019

FCC targets regulatory reform to goose supply of 5G spectrum

FCC targets regulatory reform to goose supply of 5G spectrum

New technologies have the potential to either upend the existing playing field or bring about new value propositions that render past business models passe. One of those that is expected to usher in a wider array of connectivity with speeds that match existing cable broadband speeds is 5G. Often times, these new technologies take time, usually more time than expected, to be commercialized. Yet, there are many signposts that confirm their move from concept to beta to pre-market launch to commercialization. With mobile technologies, this means have the proper infrastructure in place, capable chipsets and devices available and sufficient radio airwaves (also known as spectrum). Of the three, available spectrum is the most scarce, and it has been known to foster certain M&A activity like the marriage of Sprint and Nextel and AT&T’s $1.6 billion purchase of Straight Path last year as well as its more recent comments that it will “continue to invest significant capital in obtaining additional spectrum to meet its long-term needs.” 

One potential risk is the lack of available spectrum inhibits the expected rollout and new business models expected by 5G that would be a boon for economic growth as well as revenue and profits. For that reason, the FCC is examining spectrum alternatives and regulatory reforms that it could boost the spectrum supply as well as improve future mobile network capacity. In other words, allow for the creative destruction tailwind that 5G will bring as part of our Disruptive Innovators investing theme.

 

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to pave a smoother road to our 5G future. The government agency plans to consider freeing up more radio airwaves for use in 5G networks in its next monthly meeting, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. The commission will look to the 3.5 gigahertz spectrum band as a potential source of radio airwaves. While not the super high-frequency spectrum commonly talked about when looking at 5G networks, 3.5 Ghz has the potential to carry more capacity and speed than lower frequency spectrum used in many of today’s networks. T

he agency will also look at freeing up the use of 6 Ghz band of unlicensed spectrum for use to bolster Wi-Fi coverage. Wi-Fi runs on two existing frequecies, 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz, and adding a new band could alleviate congestion. Pai said the agency would also look at removing regulations on rural carriers, which he said would let them invest in their networks.

Source: FCC’s Ajit Pai plans to free up spectrum for 5G, Wi-Fi coverage – CNET

AT&T and Time Warner launch WatchTV, with new unlimited data plans

AT&T and Time Warner launch WatchTV, with new unlimited data plans

The dust has barely settled on the legal ruling that is paving the way for AT&T (T) to combine with Time Warner (TWX), and we are alread hearing of new products and services to stem from this combination. No surprise as we are seeing a blurring between mobile networks and devices, social media and content companies as Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB), Google (GOOGL) and now AT&T join the hunt for original content alongside Netflix (NFLX), Amazon (AMZN), and Hulu, which soon may be controlled by Disney if it successfully fends of Comcast to win 21st Century Fox.

While we as consumers have become used to having the content I want, when I want it with Tivo and then the content I want, when I want it on the device I want it on with streaming services, it looks now like it will be “the content I want, when I want it, on the device I want on the platform I choose.” All part of the overlapping to be had with our Connected Society and Content is King investing themes that we are reformulating into Digital Lifestyle – more on that soon.

In short, a content arms race is in the offing, and it will likely ripple through broadcast TV as well as advertising. Think of it as a sequel to what we saw with newspaper, magazine and book publishing as new business models for streaming content come to market… the looming question in my mind is how much will today’s consumer have to spend on all of these offerings before it becomes too pricey?

And what about Sprint (S) and T-Mobile USA (TMUS)…

 

Taking advantage of the recent approval of its merger with Time Warner, AT&T on Thursday announced WatchTV, a new live TV service premiering next week — and initially tied to two new unlimited wireless data plans.

WatchTV incorporates over 30 channels, among them several under the wing of Time Warner such as CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS, and Turner Classic Movies. Sometime after launch AT&T will grow the lineup to include Comedy Central, Nicktoons, and several other channels.

People will be able to watch on “virtually every current smartphone, tablet, or Web browser,” as well as “certain streaming devices.” The company didn’t immediately specify compatible Apple platforms, but these will presumably include at least the iPhone and iPad, given their popularity and AT&T’s long-standing relationship with Apple.

The first data plan is “AT&T Unlimited &More”, which will also include $15 in monthly credit towards DirecTV Now. People who pay extra for “&More Premium” will get higher-quality video, 15 gigabytes of tethered data, and the option to add one of several “premium” services at no charge — initial examples include TV channels like HBO or Showtime, and music platforms like Pandora Premium or Amazon Music Unlimited.

&More Premium customers can also choose to apply their $15 credit towards DirecTV or U-verse TV, instead of just DirecTV Now.

WatchTV will at some point be available as a $15-per-month standalone service, but no timeline is available.

Source: AT&T uses Time Warner merger to launch WatchTV, paired with new unlimited data plans

Positioning for the post AT&T-Time Warner ruling

Positioning for the post AT&T-Time Warner ruling

 

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ISSUE:

 

Earlier this week, a court ruling paved the way for at least two things that are poised to alter the entertainment/media industry. I’m talking about the victory had by communications company AT&T (T) over the US Department of Justice in its bid to acquire content company Time Warner (TWX). The gist of the merger between these two companies is it brings together one of the biggest programmers of movies and television with one of the biggest mobile carrier in the US. From a thematic perspective, this combines our Connected Society and Content is King under one roof, and the result is likely to be rather disruptive.

What does it mean?

Those are two legs to a combination that I am increasingly referring to as the Digital Lifestyle, which also includes our Cashless Consumption investing theme – a powerful three-legged stool that reflects the consumer digital footprint. Consumers will not only be able to get content when, where and whatever device they want, but AT&T will now have a content moat around its business. We’ve seen this strategy in play before, most notably when Comcast (CMCSA) acquired NBC Universal from General Electric (GE), but also in the combination of Disney (DIS) and ABC/Capital Cities in the mid1990s. We’ve also witnessed the power of captive content in Netflix’s (NFLX) business model, and we’re seeing companies from Amazon (AMZN) and Facebook (FB) to even Apple (AAPL) tapping into it, igniting a would-be arms race for content.

This means the competitive lines are being redrawn, and in our view serves to confirm something we have long said here at Tematica – sector investing is dead. A simple question proves the point – what sector will the new AT&T-Time Warner be in? Communications? Media/Entertainment?

That brings us to the second thing – this court ruling and potential combination of AT &T with Time Warner will more than likely send shock waves throughout these industries, leading to the usual copycat merger and acquisition activity that we tend to see. Much like a game of musical chairs, companies will look to partner up in one form or another so as to avoid being out in the cold by themselves. Of course, in this game of pick up, the longer one takes to partner up, the lower quality partnership choices one faces. This likely means companies such as T-Mobile (TMUS), which is finally combining with Sprint (S), will need to at least consider making a similar move to acquire a content-producing engine. We could see Verizon (VZ) doing the same to go beyond just its digital properties under the Oath brand, which includes the old AOL and Yahoo! web properties. As I pointed out above AT&T will be competing with those companies that are already challenging their businesses and are not tied to their legacy business models of telephone and TV services.

Odds are this means we will see a pronounced pickup in acquisition activity. Aside from AT&T-Time Warner, we are seeing another M&A attempt heat up between Disney and 21stCentury Fox (FOXA) as Comcast (CMCSA) has re-entered the bidding fray. We’ll see how this resolves itself, but odds are the company that loses the bid will look to shore up its content position. It takes time to build one’s own content library and character pool, which is another reason to expect a pickup in M&A activity and again competitors will not want to be caught flat-footed especially after the AT&T- Time Warner ruling.

How to play it?

While there are several content companies out there including CBS (CBS) and Viacom (VIAB), the vast majority of them have market capitalizations over $20 billion, which can make for an expensive proposition. Well below that threshold, however, is AMC Networks (AMCX), which is home to AMC, WE tv, BBC AMERICA, IFC, and SundanceTV and boasts a growing roster of original content, including The Walking Dead franchise, Love After Lockup, Killing Eve, McMafia, Brockmire, Dietland, Better Call Saul, Nosferatu, and others, under its AMC Studios business. That businesses’ content library also includes Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as well as its burgeoning gaming business.

To me, all of the above makes AMC Networks a likely takeout candidate and that means we are adding the AMC Networks (AMCX) September 2018 $65 calls (AMCX180921C00065000) that closed last night at 2.05 to the Tematica Options+ Select List. We’ll set a wider than usual berth with our stop loss at given the recent move from $57 to the current share price over the last several trading days, which popped the September calls from roughly $1.00 on May 23 to last night’s closing price. Factoring that in, I’m setting the stop loss at 1.25.

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Adding back a specialty contractor to Select List

WEEKLY ISSUE: Adding back a specialty contractor to Select List

 

  • We are issuing a Buy on Dycom Industries (DY) shares with a $125 price target as part of our Connected Society investing theme.
  • We are adding LendingClub (LC) shares to the Tematica Investing Contender List and will revisit the shares following the resolution of the current FTC complaint.
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) and Amazon (AMZN) shares remain $210 and $1,750, respectively.
  • Our long-term price target on shares of Applied Materials (AMAT) remains $70.

As we inch along in the second half of the current quarter, the stock market is once again dealing with the flip-flopping on foreign trade. Last week there appeared to be modest progress between China and the US but following comments from President Trump on the pending summit with North Korea and “no deal” regarding China’s bankrupt ZTE, trade uncertainty is once again gripping the markets. Several weeks ago, I cautioned we were likely in for some turbulent weeks – some up some down – as these negotiations got underway. In my view, there will be much back and forth, which will keep the stock market on edge. I’ll continue to utilize our thematic lens and look for compelling long-term opportunities in the coming weeks, just like the one we are about to discuss…

 

Adding back shares of Dycom (DY) to the Tematica Investing Select List

Late last summer, we exited our position in specialty contractor and Connected Society food chain company Dycom Industries (DY) that serves the mobile and broadband infrastructure markets. Yesterday, following an earnings miss and reduced guidance from the company, its share dropped 20% to $92.64. The reason for the miss and outlook revisions stemmed from weather-related concerns during the February and March months as well as protracted timing associated with key next-gen network buildouts.

Clearly disappointing, but we have seen such timing issues before in the buildouts of both 3G and 4G/LTE networks before. In today’s stock market that double disappointment hit DY shares, no different than it has other companies that have come up short this earnings season.

We’ve often used pronounced pullbacks in existing positions to sweeten our average cost basis, and today we’re going to use this drop in DY shares to add them back to the Tematica Investing Select List.

Why?

Two reasons.

First, the inevitability of 5G network deployments from key customers (AT&T) and Verizon (VZ). Those two alongside their competitors have Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) have committed to launching 5G networks by year-end, with a buildout to a national footprint to follow over the ensuing quarters. AT&T and Verizon accounted for 24% and 16% of the quarter’s revenue with Comcast (CMCSA) clocking in at just under 22% and Centurylink (CTL:NYSE) around 12%. This positions Dycom extremely well not only for the pending 5G buildout, but also the gigabit fiber one that is underway at cable operators like Comcast. Amid the timing disruptions with AT&T and Centurylink that led to the earnings disappointment and outlook cut, Dycom called out solid progress with Verizon, as its revenue rose more than 80% year over year. There’s also an added bonus – Dycom has little exposure to Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge and based on what we’ve seen in the past that means spending cuts are likely to be had as they consolidate existing assets and capital expansion plans.

Here’s the thing, while it is easy to get caught up in yesterday’s DY share price drop, it’s akin to missing the forest for the trees given the network upgrades and next-gen buildouts that will occur not over the coming months, but over the coming quarters.

Dissecting Dycom’s quarterly earnings and revised outlook that calls for EPS of $1.78-$1.93 in the first half of the year, to hit its new full-year target EPS of $4.26-$5.15 it means delivering EPS of $2.98-$3.22 in the back half of the year. In other words, a pronounced pick up in business activity that likely hinges on a pickup in network buildout activity from its customers.

I do expect Wall Street price target revisions and analyst commentary to weigh on DY shares in the near-term. Even I am cutting my once $140 price target for the shares to $125. That $140 target was based on 2019 EPS of $7.10 per share and given the company’s comments yesterday I expect 2019 EPS forecasts to be revised down to the $6.00-$6.50 range.

As the 5G buildout gets under way, the reality is that several quarters from now, such EPS and price target cuts could prove to be conservative, but I’d rather be in the position to raise our price target as the company beats EPS expectations. That revised 2019 EPS range derives a price target for DY shares of $120-$130. For now, we’ll split the difference at $125, which still offers almost 35% upside from current share price levels.

  • We are issuing a Buy on Dycom Industries (DY) shares with a $125 price target as part of our Connected Society investing theme.

 

Putting LendingClub shares onto the Contender List

As team Tematica has been discussing over the last several weeks in our writings and on our Cocktail Investing Podcast, we’re seeing increasing signs of inflation in the systems from both hard and soft data points. This likely means the Fed will boost rates four not three times in 2018 with additional rate hikes to be had 2019. That’s what’s in the front windshield of the investing car, while inside we are getting more data that points to a stretched consumer.

  • Per the May 2018 Consumer Debt Outlook report from Lending Tree (TREE), Americans are on pace to amass a collective $4 trillion in consumer debt by the end of 2018. This means Americans are spending more than 26% of their income on consumer debt, up from 22% in 2010 with the bulk of that increase due to non-house related borrowing.
  • The Charles Schwab’s (SCHW) 2018 Modern Wealth Index that reveals three in five Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
  • A new report from the Federal Reserve finds that 40% of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense and 25% of Americans have no retirement savings.

 

As consumer debt grows, it’s going to become even more expensive to service as the Fed further increases interest rates. On its recent quarterly earnings conference call, LendingClub’s (LC) CFO Tom Casey shared that “Borrowers are starting to see the increased cost of credit as most credit card debt is indexed to prime, which has moved up 75 basis points from a year ago…We have observed a number of lenders increase rates to borrowers…We know that consumers are feeling the increase in rates.”

Again, that’s before the Fed rate hikes that are to come.

The bottom line is it likely means more debt and higher interest payments that lead to less disposable income for consumers to spend. Unfortunately, we see this as a tailwind for our Cash-strapped Consumer investing theme as well as a headwind for consumer spending and the economy. We’ve seen the power of this tailwind in monthly retail same store sales from Costco Wholesale (COST), which have simply been off the charts, and in monthly Retail Sales reports that show departments stores, sporting goods stores and others continue to lose consumer wallet share at the expense of non-store retailers like Amazon (AMZN). The drive is the need to stretch what disposable spending dollars a consumer has.

The reality is, however, that those that lack sufficient funds will seek out alternatives. In some cases that means adding to their borrowings, often times at less than attractive rates.

With that in mind, above I mentioned LendingClub. For those unfamiliar with the company, it operates an online credit marketplace that connects borrowers and investors in the US. It went public a few years ago and was heralded as a disruptive business for consumers and businesses to obtain credit based on its digital product platform. That marketplace facilitates various types of loan products for consumers and small businesses, including unsecured personal loans, unsecured education and patient finance loans, auto refinance loans, and unsecured small business loans. The company also provides an opportunity to the investor to invest in a range of loans based on term and credit.

Last year 78% of its $575 million in revenue was derived from loan origination transaction fees derived from its platform’s role in accepting and decisioning applications on behalf of the company’s bank partners. More than 50 banks—ranging in total assets of less than $100 million to more than $100 billion—have taken advantage LendingClub’s partnership program.

LendingClub’s second largest revenue stream is derived from investor fees, which include servicing fees for various services, including servicing and collection efforts and matching available loans with capital and management fees from investment funds and other managed accounts, gains on sales of whole loans, interest income earned and fair value gains/losses from loans held on the company’s balance sheet.

The core loan origination transaction fee business along with the consensus price target of $5.00, which offers compelling upside from the current share prices, has caught my interest. However, there is one very good reason for why I am recommending we wait on LC shares.

It’s because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a complaint against LendingClub, charging that it has misled consumers and has been deducting hidden fees from loan proceeds issued to borrowers. Moreover, as stated in the FTC’s complaint, Lending Club recognized that its hidden fee was a significant problem for consumers, and an internal review by the company noted that its claims about the fee and the amount consumers would receive “could be perceived as deceptive as it is likely to mislead the consumer.”

Given the potential fallout, which could pressure LC shares, we’ll sit on the sidelines with LendingClub and look for other companies that are positioned to capitalize on this particular Cash-strapped Consumer pain point.

  • We are adding LendingClub (LC) shares to the Tematica Investing Contender List and will revisit the shares following the resolution of the current FTC complaint.
  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) and Amazon (AMZN) shares remain $210 and $1,750, respectively.

 

Sticking with shares of Applied Materials

Last week Disruptive Technology company Applied Materials (AMAT) reported quarterly results that once again topped expectations but guided the current quarter below expectations. As I mentioned above with Dycom shares, the current market mood is less than forgiving in these situations and that led AMAT shares to give back much of the gains made in the first half of May.

The shortfall relative to expectations reflected reported weakness in high end smartphones, which is slowing capital additions for both chips and organic light-emitting diode display equipment. This is the latest in a growing number of red flags on smartphone demand, which in my view is likely to be the latest transition period in the world of smartphones. For those wondering about our Apple (AAPL) shares, the company already issued a sequentially down iPhone forecast when it reported its own earnings several weeks back as it upsized its own buyback program.

Again, looking back on my Dycom comments above, mobile carriers are about to embark on building out their 5G networks, which will drive incremental RF semiconductor chip demand as well as drive demand for new applications, such as semi-autonomous and autonomous cars. I see 5G devices with near broadband data speeds driving the next smartphone upgrade cycle. When that happens, there are also other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality that will be moving into a greater number of these and other devices. On its earnings call, Applied shared it’s starting to see ramping demand for artificial intelligence, big data a cloud related applications. I see more of this happening in the coming quarters… again, the long-term forest vs. the quarterly tree… and I haven’t even mentioned the internet of things (IoT).

Another driver I’m watching for Applied’s semi-cap business is the ongoing buildout of in-China semiconductor capacity. The item to watch for this is The National Integrated Circuitry Investment Fund, which represents the Chinese government’s primary vehicle to develop the domestic semiconductor supply chain and become competitive with the U.S.  chip industry leader the US. That fund is reportedly closing in on an upsized 300 billion-yuan fund ($47.4 billion) fund vs. the expected 120 billion-yuan ($18.98 billion) to support the domestic chip sector. As we have seen in the headlines with ZTE as well as the Broadcom (AVGO) bid for Qualcomm (QCOM), the semiconductor industry has taken a leading role in the current U.S.-China trade conflict. As I continue to watch these trade discussions play out, I’ll only be assessing implications for the National Integrated Circuitry Investment Fund and our Applied Materials shares.

In terms of organic light emitting diode displays and revisiting shares of Universal Display (OLED), the industry is still in a digestion period given the capacity ramp for that technology and the smartphone transition I touched on above. We’ve got OLED shares on the Tematica Investing Contender List and I’ll be watching them and signs of ramping demand as we move through the summer months.

While we wait, I expect Applied will continue to put its robust share repurchase program to use. As we learned in its quarterly earnings report last week, during the quarter, Applied used $2.5 billion of its $8.8 billion share repurchase authorization to repurchase 44 million shares, roughly 4% of the outstanding share count coming into the quarter. I suspect that once the post-earnings quiet period is over, Applied will be putting more of that program to work. I see that as limiting downside from current levels.

Finally, a quick reminder that come June, Applied will be paying its first $0.20 per share dividend.

  • Our long-term price target on shares of Applied Materials (AMAT) remains $70.
  • As we monitor signs of organic light emitting diode display demand, we continue to have shares of Universal Display on the Tematica Investing Contender List

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: The Shakeout from Market Volatility on the Select List

WEEKLY ISSUE: The Shakeout from Market Volatility on the Select List

 

 

It’s Wednesday, February 7, and the stock market is coming off one of its wild rides it has seen in the last few days. I shared my thoughts on the what’s and why’s behind that yesterday with subscribers as well as with Charles Payne, the host of Making Money with Charles Payne on Fox Business – if you missed that, you can watch it here.

As investors digest the realization the Fed could boost interest rates more than it has telegraphed – something very different than we’ve experienced in the last several years – the domestic stock market appears to be finding its footing as gains over the last few days are being recouped. Lending a helping hand is the corporate bond market, which, in contrast to the turbulent moves of late in the domestic stock market, signals that credit investors remain comfortable with corporate credit fundamentals, the outlook for earnings and the ability for companies to absorb higher interest rates.

My perspective is this expectation reset for domestic stocks follows a rapid ascent over the last few months, and it’s removed some of the froth from the market as valuations levels have drifted back to earth from the rare air they recently inhabited.

 

Among Opportunity This New Market Dynamic Brings, There Have Been Casualties

While this offers some new opportunities for both new positions on the Tematica Investing Select List as well as the opportunity to scale into some positions at better prices once the sharp swings in stocks have abated some, it also means there have been some casualties.

We were stopped out of our shares in Cashless Consumption investment theme company, USA Technologies (USAT) when our $7.50 stop loss was triggered yesterday. While the shares snapped back along with the market rally yesterday, we were none the less stopped out, with the overall position returning more than 65% since we added them to the Select List last April. For those keeping track, that compares to the 15.3% return in the S&P 500 at the same time so, yeah, we’re not exactly broken up over things. We will put USAT shares on the Tematica Contender List and look to revisit them after the company reports earnings tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 8).

That’s the second Select List position to have been stopped out in the last several days. The other was AXT Inc. (AXTI) last week, and as a reminder that position returned almost 27% vs. a 15% move in the S&P 500. Again, not too shabby!

The last week has brought a meaningful dip in shares of Costco Wholesale (COST). On recent episodes of our Cocktail Investing Podcast, Tematica Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins and I have discussed the lack of pronounced wage gains for nonsupervisory workers (82% of the US workforce) paired with rising credit card and other debt. That combination likely means we haven’t seen the last of the Cash-Strapped Consumer investment theme — of the key thematic tailwinds we see behind Costco’s business. While COST shares are still up more than 15% since being added to the Select List, we see the recent 5% drop in the shares as an opportunity for those who remained on the sidelines before the company reports its quarterly earnings in early March.

  • Our price target on Costco Wholesale (COST) shares remains $200.

 

 

Remaining Patient on AMAT, OLED and AAPL

Two other names on the Tematica Investing Select List have fallen hard of late, in part due to the market’s gyrations, but also over lingering Apple (AAPL) and other smartphone-related concerns. We are referring to Disruptive Technologies investment theme companies Applied Materials (AMAT) and Universal Display (OLED). As we shared last week, it increasingly looks that Apple’s smartphone volumes, especially for the higher priced, higher margin iPhone X won’t be cut as hard as had been rumored. Moreover, current chatter suggests Apple will once again introduce three new iPhone models this year, two of which are slated to utilize organic light emitting diode displays.

Odds are iPhone projections will take time to move from chatter to belief to fact. In the meantime, we are seeing other smartphone vendors adopt organic light emitting diode displays, and as we saw at CES 201 TV adoption is going into full swing this year. That ramping demand also bodes for Applied Materials (AMAT), which is also benefitting from capital spending plans in China and elsewhere as chip manufacturers contend with rising demand across a growing array of connected devices and data centers.

  • Our price target on Apple (AAPL) remains $200
  • Our price target on Universal Display (OLED) remains $225
  • Our price target on Applied Materials (AMAT) remains $70

 

The 5G Network Buildout is Gaining Momentum – Good News for NOK and DY

This past week beleaguered mobile carrier, Sprint (S), threw its hat into the 5G network ring announcing that it will join AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), and T-Mobile USA (TMUS) in launching a commercial 5G network in 2019. That was news was a solid boost to our Nokia (NOK) shares, which rose 15% last week. The company remains poised to see a pick-up in infrastructure demand as well as IP licensing for 5G technology, and I’ll continue to watch network launch details as well as commentary from Contender List resident Dycom Industries (DY), whose business focuses on the actual construction of such networks.

Several months ago, I shared that we tend to see a pack mentality with the mobile carriers and new technologies – once one makes a move, the others tend to follow rather than risk a customer base that thinks they are behind the curve. In today’s increasingly Connected Society that chews increasingly on data and streaming services, that thought can be a deathblow to a company’s customer count.

  • Our price target on Nokia (NOK) shares remains $8.50
  • I continue to evaluate upgrading Dycom (DY) shares to the Select List, but I am inclined to wait until we pass the winter season given the impact of weather on the company’s construction business.

 

Disney Offers Some Hope for Its ESPN Unit

Last night Disney (DIS) announced its December quarter results while the overall tone was positive, the stand out item to me was the announcement of the new ESPN streaming service being introduced in the next few months that has a price tag of $4.99 a month. For that, ESPN+ customers will get “thousands” of live events, including pro baseball, hockey and soccer, as well as tennis, boxing, golf and college sports not available on ESPN’s traditional TV networks. Alongside the service, Disney will unveil a new, streamlined version of the ESPN app, which is slated to include greater levels of customization.

In my view, all of this lays the groundwork for Disney’s eventual launch of its own Disney streaming content service in 2019, but it also looks to change the conversation around ESPN proper, a business that continues to lose subscribers. Not surprising, given that Comcast (CMCA) continues to report cable TV subscriber defections. One of the key components to watch will be the shake-out of the rights to stream live games from the major professional leagues — the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA. Currently, ESPN is on the hook for about $4 billion a year in rights fees to those three leagues alone — not to mention the rights fees committed to college athletics. Those deals, however, include only the rights to broadcast those games on cable networks or on the ESPN app to customers that can prove they have a cable subscription, not cord-cutters. So the question will be how quick will customers jump on board to pay $5 a month for lower-level games, or will they be able to cut deals with the major professional sports leagues to include some of their games as well.

Nevertheless, I continue to see all of these developments as Disney moving its content business in step with our Connected Society investing theme, which should be an additive element to the Content is King investment theme tailwind Disney continues to ride. With that in mind, we are seeing rave reviews for the next Marvel movie – The Black Panther – that will be released on Feb. 16. The company’s more robust 2018 movie slate kicks off in earnest a few months later.

  • We will continue to be patient investors with Disney, and our price target on the shares remains $125

 

 

 

RadioShack Filed For Bankruptcy….Again

RadioShack Filed For Bankruptcy….Again

As we discussed on the latest edition of Cocktail Investing, we’re not really shocked that RadioShack is once again filing for bankruptcy. Between the move to digital commerce that has weighted on foot traffic into RadioShack stores and the near disposable nature of many consume electronics today, it’s not been an easy road for the company. Leveraging its future to smartphones likely provided an inital boost, but selling the same smartphones as Best Buy and mobile operator stores like those from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon means your offering is more or less a commodity. We know we saw it coming, but we have to wonder if RadioShack management saw the Connected Society headwind it was dealing with?

For the second time in 25 months, electronics retailer RadioShack has filed for bankruptcy protection. The first time around, The Shack closed just over half of its stores, partnering with Sprint to keep the rest open and preserve thousands of jobs. This week, the company formed to keep the brand going sought permission from the bank to close between one-third and all of its stores.

By the way, if you have any gift cards for RadioShack around, including cards for the original version of the company before the bankruptcy, you have until April 7, 2017 to cash them in

Source: RadioShack Wants To Close Somewhere Between 530 And All Of Its Stores – Consumerist