Weekly Issue: As trade concerns escalate, investors brace for an expectations reset

Weekly Issue: As trade concerns escalate, investors brace for an expectations reset


Key points inside this issue

  • Safety & Security Thematic Leader is up big year to date, and new body camera and digital records products hitting later this year should accelerate the company’s transition. Our long-term price target on AAXN shares remains $90.
  • The April Retail Sales Report should offer confirmation for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) as well as Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST). 


Given the wide swings in the market over the last few days that are tied back to the changing US-China trade talk landscape, I thought it prudent to share my latest thoughts even if it’s a day earlier than usual. 

As we discussed in the last issue of Tematica Investing, we knew that coming into last week, it was going to be a challenging one. Trade tensions kicked up to levels few were expecting 10 days ago and as the week progressed the tension and uncertainty crept even higher. We all know the stock market is no fan of uncertainty, but when paired with upsized tariffs from both the US and China that will present new economic and earnings headwinds, something that was not foreseen just a few weeks ago, investors will once again have to revisit their expectations for the economy and earnings. And yes, odds are those past and even more recent expectations will be revisited to the downside. 

What was originally thought to have been President Trump looking to squeeze some last- minute trade deal points out of the Chinese instead turned out to be more of a response to China’s attempt to do the same. This revealed the tenuous state of U.S./China trade talks. Last Friday morning, the U.S. had boosted tariffs to 25% from 10% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods with President Trump tweeting there is “absolutely no need to rush” and that “China should not renegotiate deals with the U.S. at the last minute.” Even as the new tariffs and tweets arrived, trade negotiations continued Friday in Washington with no trade deal put in place, which dashed the hopes of some traders. Candidly, I didn’t expect a trade deal to emerge given what had transpired over the prior week. 

That hope-inspired rebound late Friday in the domestic stock market returned to renewed market pressure over the weekend and into this week as more questions over U.S.-China trade have emerged. As we started off this week, the trade angst between the U.S. and China has edged higher as China has responded to last week’s U.S. tariff bump by saying it would increase tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods to 25% from 10% beginning June 1st. Clearly, the latest round of tweets from President Trump won’t ease investor concern as to how the trade talks will move forward from here.

As the trade war rhetoric kicks up alongside tariffs, the next date to watch will be the G-20 economic summit in Japan next month. According to Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, there is a “strong possibility” Trump will meet Chinese President Xi and this morning President Trump confirmed that. 

The cherry or cherries on top of all of this is the growing worries over increasing tension with Iran, which is weighing on the market this morning, and yet another 2019 growth forecast cut by the EU that came complete with a fresh warning on Italy’s debt levels. Growth projections by the European Commission showed a mere 0.1% for GDP growth this year in Italy. The country has the second-largest debt pile in the EU and, according to the latest forecasts by the commission, the Italian debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 133% this year and rise to 135% in 2020. I point these out not to worry or spook you, but rather remind you there are other issues than just US-China trade that have to be factored into our thinking.

The natural market reaction to all of these concerns is to adopt a “risk off” attitude, which, as we’ve seen before, can ignite a storm of “fire first, ask questions later.” And as should be no surprise, that has fueled the sharp move lower in the major market indices. Over the last several days, the S&P 500, which as we know if the barometer used by most institutional and professional investors, fell 4.7% while the small-cap heavy Russell 2000 dropped 5.7%.

At times like this, it pays to do nothing. Hard to believe but as you’ve often heard few will step in to catch a falling knife and given the sharp declines, we also run the risk of a dead cat bounce in the market. We should be patient until the market finds its footing, which means parsing what comes next on the economic and earnings as well as trade front.  

I’ll continue to look for replacements for open Thematic Leader slots as well as other contenders poised to benefit from our pronounced thematic tailwinds. In the near-term, that will mean focusing on ones that also have a more U.S.-focused business model, a focus on inelastic and consumable products. Another avenue that investors are likely to revisit is dividend-paying companies, particularly those that fall into the Dividend Aristocrats category because they’ve consistently grown their dividends for the past 10 years. As I sift through the would-be contenders, I’ll be sure to look for those that intersect our investing themes and the aristocrats. 


Tematica Investing

As the stock market has come under pressure, a number of our Thematic Leaders, as well as companies on the Select List, have given back some of their year-to-date gains. One that has rallied and moved higher in spite of the market sell-off is Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AAXN) and are up some 48% year to date. That makes it the second-best performer on the Thematic Leaderboard year to date behind Clean Living company Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) that is up nearly 60% even after the market’s recent bout of indigestion.

Axon reported its March quarter earnings last week, which saw revenue grow 14% year over year as Axon continues to shift its business mix from Taser hardware to its Software & Sensor business that fall under the Axon Body and Axon Records businesses. During the company’s earnings conference call, the management team shared its next gen products will be available during the back half of the year. These include the Axon Body, its first camera with LTE live streaming, will launch during the September quarter and Axon Records, its first stand-alone software product. Records w will launch with a major city police department and it is already testing with a second major police department. As far as the new Axon Body product, I suspect the untethering of this camera could spur adoption much the way Apple’s (AAPL) Apple Watch saw a pronounced pick up when it added cellular connectivity to its third model. 

These new products, which leverage the intersection between our Digital Infrastructure investing theme and our Safety & Security one, should accelerate the transition to a higher margin, recurring revenue business in the coming quarters. In other words, Axon’s transformation is poised to continue and as that happens investors will be revisiting how they value the company’s business. More than likely that means further upside ahead for AAXN shares. 

  • Our price target on Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AAXN) remains $90.


Here comes the April Retail Sales Report

Later this week, we’ll get the April Retail Sales Report, which should benefit for the late Easter holiday this year. Up until the March report, this data stream was disappointing during December through February but even so from a thematic perspective the reports continued to reinforce our Digital Lifestyle and Middle-class Squeeze investing themes. 

When we look at the April data, I’ll be looking at both the sequential and year over year comparisons for Nonstore retailers, the government category for digital shopping and the category that best captures Thematic King Amazon (AMZN). I’ll also be looking at the general merchandise stores category with regard to Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST). Costco has already shared its April same-store sales, which rose 7.7% in the US despite having one less shopping day during the month compared to last year. Excluding the impact of gas prices and foreign exchange, Costco’s April sales were up 5.6% year over year. From my perspective, the is the latest data point that shows Costco continues to take consumer wallet share. 

With reported disposable income data inside the monthly Personal Income & Spending reports essentially flat for the last few months and Costco continuing to open new warehouse locations, which should spur its high margin membership revenue, I continue to see further upside ahead in COST shares. And yes, the same applies to Amazon shares as well.

  • Our $250 price target for Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST) is under review.


Weekly Issue: Looking to Avoid the Dead Cat Bounce

Weekly Issue: Looking to Avoid the Dead Cat Bounce


Key points inside this issue

  • As trade concerns escalate, investors brace for an expectations reset.
  • Safety & Security Thematic Leader is up big year to date, and new body camera and digital records products hitting later this year should accelerate the company’s transition. Our long-term price target on AAXN shares remains $90.
  • The April Retail Sales Report should offer confirmation for Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) as well as Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST). 
  • Given the wide swings in the market over the last few days and the risk of a dead cat bounce, we are once again remaining on the sidelines when it comes to a new option recommendation. 


Given the wide swings in the market over the last few days that are tied back to the changing US-China trade talk landscape, I thought it prudent to share my latest thoughts even if it’s a day earlier than usual. 


As trade concerns escalate, investors brace for an expectations reset

As we discussed in the last issue of Tematica Investing, we knew that coming into last week, it was going to be a challenging one. Trade tensions kicked up to levels few were expecting 10 days ago and as the week progressed the tension and uncertainty crept even higher. We all know the stock market is no fan of uncertainty, but when paired with upsized tariffs from both the US and China that will present new economic and earnings headwinds, something that was not foreseen just a few weeks ago, investors will once again have to revisit their expectations for the economy and earnings. And yes, odds are those past and even more recent expectations will be revisited to the downside. 

What was originally thought to have been President Trump looking to squeeze some last- minute trade deal points out of the Chinese instead turned out to be more of a response to China’s attempt to do the same. This revealed the tenuous state of U.S./China trade talks. Last Friday morning, the U.S. had boosted tariffs to 25% from 10% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods with President Trump tweeting there is “absolutely no need to rush” and that “China should not renegotiate deals with the U.S. at the last minute.” Even as the new tariffs and tweets arrived, trade negotiations continued Friday in Washington with no trade deal put in place, which dashed the hopes of some traders. Candidly, I didn’t expect a trade deal to emerge given what had transpired over the prior week. 

That hope-inspired rebound late Friday in the domestic stock market returned to renewed market pressure over the weekend and into this week as more questions over U.S.-China trade have emerged. As we started off this week, the trade angst between the U.S. and China has edged higher as China has responded to last week’s U.S. tariff bump by saying it would increase tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods to 25% from 10% beginning June 1st. Clearly, the latest round of tweets from President Trump won’t ease investor concern as to how the trade talks will move forward from here.

As the trade war rhetoric kicks up alongside tariffs, the next date to watch will be the G-20 economic summit in Japan next month. According to Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, there is a “strong possibility” Trump will meet Chinese President Xi and this morning President Trump confirmed that. 

The cherry or cherries on top of all of this is the growing worries over increasing tension with Iran, which is weighing on the market this morning, and yet another 2019 growth forecast cut by the EU that came complete with a fresh warning on Italy’s debt levels. Growth projections by the European Commission showed a mere 0.1% for GDP growth this year in Italy. The country has the second-largest debt pile in the EU and, according to the latest forecasts by the commission, the Italian debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 133% this year and rise to 135% in 2020. I point these out not to worry or spook you, but rather remind you there are other issues than just US-China trade that have to be factored into our thinking.

The natural market reaction to all of these concerns is to adopt a “risk off” attitude, which, as we’ve seen before, can ignite a storm of “fire first, ask questions later.” And as should be no surprise, that has fueled the sharp move lower in the major market indices. Over the last several days, the S&P 500, which as we know if the barometer used by most institutional and professional investors, fell 4.7% while the small-cap heavy Russell 2000 dropped 5.7%.

At times like this, it pays to do nothing. Hard to believe but as you’ve often heard few will step in to catch a falling knife and given the sharp declines, we also run the risk of a dead cat bounce in the market. We should be patient until the market finds its footing, which means parsing what comes next on the economic and earnings as well as trade front.  

I’ll continue to look for replacements for open Thematic Leader slots as well as other contenders poised to benefit from our pronounced thematic tailwinds. In the near-term, that will mean focusing on ones that also have a more U.S.-focused business model, a focus on inelastic and consumable products. Another avenue that investors are likely to revisit is dividend-paying companies, particularly those that fall into the Dividend Aristocrats category because they’ve consistently grown their dividends for the past 10 years. As I sift through the would-be contenders, I’ll be sure to look for those that intersect our investing themes and the aristocrats. 


Tematica Investing

As the stock market has come under pressure, a number of our Thematic Leaders, as well as companies on the Select List, have given back some of their year-to-date gains. One that has rallied and moved higher in spite of the market sell-off is Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AAXN) and are up some 48% year to date. That makes it the second-best performer on the Thematic Leaderboard year to date behind Clean Living company Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) that is up nearly 60% even after the market’s recent bout of indigestion.

Axon reported its March quarter earnings last week, which saw revenue grow 14% year over year as Axon continues to shift its business mix from Taser hardware to its Software & Sensor business that fall under the Axon Body and Axon Records businesses. During the company’s earnings conference call, the management team shared its next gen products will be available during the back half of the year. These include the Axon Body, its first camera with LTE live streaming, will launch during the September quarter and Axon Records, its first stand-alone software product. Records w will launch with a major city police department and it is already testing with a second major police department. As far as the new Axon Body product, I suspect the untethering of this camera could spur adoption much the way Apple’s (AAPL) Apple Watch saw a pronounced pick up when it added cellular connectivity to its third model. 

These new products, which leverage the intersection between our Digital Infrastructure investing theme and our Safety & Security one, should accelerate the transition to a higher margin, recurring revenue business in the coming quarters. In other words, Axon’s transformation is poised to continue and as that happens investors will be revisiting how they value the company’s business. More than likely that means further upside ahead for AAXN shares. 

  • Our price target on Safety & Security Thematic Leader Axon Enterprises (AAXN) remains $90.


Here comes the April Retail Sales Report

Later this week, we’ll get the April Retail Sales Report, which should benefit for the late Easter holiday this year. Up until the March report, this data stream was disappointing during December through February but even so from a thematic perspective the reports continued to reinforce our Digital Lifestyle and Middle-class Squeeze investing themes. 

When we look at the April data, I’ll be looking at both the sequential and year over year comparisons for Nonstore retailers, the government category for digital shopping and the category that best captures Thematic King Amazon (AMZN). I’ll also be looking at the general merchandise stores category with regard to Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST). Costco has already shared its April same-store sales, which rose 7.7% in the US despite having one less shopping day during the month compared to last year. Excluding the impact of gas prices and foreign exchange, Costco’s April sales were up 5.6% year over year. From my perspective, the is the latest data point that shows Costco continues to take consumer wallet share. 

With reported disposable income data inside the monthly Personal Income & Spending reports essentially flat for the last few months and Costco continuing to open new warehouse locations, which should spur its high margin membership revenue, I continue to see further upside ahead in COST shares. And yes, the same applies to Amazon shares as well.

  • Our $250 price target for Middle-class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale (COST) is under review.


Tematica Options+

For the last two weeks, we’ve sat on the sidelines in terms of a new call option position. Given the sharp move lower in that time –roughly 4.5% for the S&P 500 and more than 5.7% for the small-cap heavy Russell 2000, which included last Friday’s sharp reversal before giving it all back and earlier this week – it has been a volatile time for trading options. 

Coming after the market’s sharp move lower on Monday, one of my concerns is avoiding a potential dead cat bounce in the stock market, which we’ve seen happen before in the past during quick swings to the downside. The key during times like this is to preserve capital rather than get whipsawed. Being prudent rather than overly risky. 

As we move through the week, we’ll get the April Retail Sales report. As we get and dissect that report, I’ll be assessing a new call option prospect in either TJX Companies (TJX) or Ross Stores (ROST), both of which have domestic-focused businesses and are riding our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme. 

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.

 

 

Off-price retailers – another thorn in the side of department stores

Off-price retailers – another thorn in the side of department stores

A new report from Moody’s reinforces the negativity surrounding department stores like Macy’s (M), JC Penny (JCP) and Nordstrom (JWN). Unlike most that focus on the shift to digital commerce that is part of our Connected Society theme, Moody’s adds a perspective that meshes extremely well with our Cash-Strapped Consumer and Rise & Fall of the Middle Class investing themes — consumers embracing off-price retailers such as TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods all of which are part of TJX Companies (TJX) as well as Ross Stores (ROST).

One interesting observation is the expanding footprint of these off-price retailers beyond apparel and into home products, which offers additional challenges to Macy’s and other department stores that have home products and furnishings. This move also means additional challenges for Pottery Barn (owned by William-Sonoma (WSM)), privately held Crate and Barrell and Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY).

Off-price retailers will remain among the top performers in the U.S. retail industry during the next 12 to 18 months.

That’s according to a new report from Moody’s Investors Service. The outlook is not as positive for department stores, which will continue to struggle as they seek to level the playing field with both off-price and online vendors.

Moody’s expects operating income in the off-price sector to grow 6.9% in 2017 and 5.4% in 2018. Department stores will see operating income decline 9.3% this year and 2.7% in 2018.

“Off-price retailers continue to outperform other sectors of the U.S. retail industry largely because they offer the kind of lower-cost, higher-value products and shopping experience many consumers are looking for,” said Moody’s analyst, Christina Boni. “Off-price stores are far outstripping department stores, which in contrast are still struggling with outmoded formats and supply chains that can’t keep pace with customer demand.”

Despite their lack of e-commerce penetration, off-price retailers have succeeded where department stores have foundered due to their focus on delivering major label brands at significant discounts to value-hungry consumers, Moody’s said. Off-price vendors also outperform the broader universe of U.S. apparel-focused retailers.

While apparel sales make up the bulk of their sales, off-price retailers have been increasing their product mix in the higher-growth and less competitive home products category. Moody’s estimates that home product sales at off-price stores grew 9.9% in 2016, compared with 7.8% for the off-price sectors overall growth.

Source: Moody’s: No letup in sight to off-price growth |Chain Store Age