Trade and Impeachment Uncertainty Returns

Trade and Impeachment Uncertainty Returns

Today’s Big Picture

US equity futures point to a drop at the open and are being driven by two-weekend news items. First, on the impeachment front, a second whistleblower has come forward claiming first-hand knowledge of the allegations against President Trump. Second, reports are indicating Chinese officials are reluctant to agree to a broad trade deal as aimed for by President Trump and would likely exclude the reformation of Chinese industrial policy and government subsidies, two topics of longstanding U.S. complaints. 

This combination along with weak economic data out of Europe this morning is adding a fresh dose of uncertainty back into the market following Friday’s supposed Goldilocks September Employment Report, and raises questions…

Read more here

Weekly Issue: As Global Economy Slows, Investors Switch into Fear Mode

Weekly Issue: As Global Economy Slows, Investors Switch into Fear Mode


Key points inside this issue

  • The global economy continued to slow in August
  • Uncertainty has investors in Extreme Fear mode
  • Trade remains the focus of the stock market
  • Boosting our Disney (DIS) price target following D23’s Disney+ focus
  • Items to watch this week


The stock market has been a more volatile than usual over the last few weeks as investors:

  • Contend with the latest global economic data
  • Eye the yield curve
  • Question what the Fed will do next
  • Brace for the next round of trade talks

As if that wasn’t enough, we’ve also witnessed mixed June quarter retail earnings, which are now getting factored into second half of 2019 earnings-per-share expectations for the S&P 500. At the same time, the velocity of corporate buybacks has slowed, Washington is scrutinizing tech companies, and consumer confidence is waning. 

All in all, these issues weighing on investors minds have led to swings in the market based on the most recent headlines, and that can make for a challenging time in the market and for investors.


The global economy continued to slow in August

Last Thursday morning, we received the first meaningful piece of August economic data in the form of the IHS Markit Flash PMI data for the month, and in aggregate, it confirms the global economic slowdown. To date, the U.S. has been the best house on the slowing economic block, but Thursday’s data, which showed the domestic manufacturing sector contracting for the first time in a decade means the trade war and uncertain environment are weighing on the economy. 

During periods of uncertainty, whether we’re talking about companies or people, the natural instinct is to pull back, wait and assess the situation. For both people and companies, dialing back spending is an arguable course of action when faced with uncertainty, but from an economic perspective that translates into a headwind for growth. We’re seeing that headwind in the day’s Flash PMI data.

Aside from the headline, U.S. Flash Manufacturing PMI hit 49.9, marking a 119-month low; the index’s new orders component put in its weakest reading since 2009. Per the report, “Survey respondents often cited subdued corporate spending in response to softer business conditions and concerns about the global economic outlook.” 

But as we saw with the July Retail Sales report, consumers continue to spend, despite rising debt levels and banks are starting to report a pick-up in delinquency rates. The question that is coming to the forefront of investor minds is whether consumers will be able to spend and keep the economy chugging along during the all- important holiday shopping season that will soon be upon us? Given the continued increase in consumer debt levels and news that Citibank (C), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and other banks are reporting rising credit card delinquency rates we could be starting to see the consumer spending breaking point. 

Looking at the August Flash PMI data for the eurozone, the slowdown continued as well, but the report also registered a “sizeable drop in confidence regarding the 12-month outlook” with sentiment down to its lowest level since May 2013. Digging into that report we find new order growth in Germany, the largest economy in the eurozone, falling to its weakest levels since early 2013. The August data for the region confirms current forecasts the region is likely to hit just 0.1%-0.2% Gross Domestic Product in the current quarter. Another round of weak data, and odds are we’ll soon see recession fears rising ahead of the European Central Banks upcoming mid-September monetary policy meeting.


Uncertainty has investors in Extreme Fear mode

If we were to step back and look at the data, what we are seeing is data that points to a continued slowdown with some bright spots. Granted those bright spots are also somewhat mixed and there are reasons to be concerned over the sustainability of those bright spots. Is it any wonder then that the CNN Money Fear & Greed Index has been firmly in “Extreme Fear” for the last week? In a word, no.

During periods of Extreme Fear, the jittery market is bound to overreact. Add in the fact that we are in one of the seasonally slowest times of the year for trading volumes means market reactions will be even more extreme one way or another. The danger for investors is to get caught up in the turbulence, and it can be rather easy to do, especially if one is looking to pile onto a money-making trade, be it a long or short one. This makes headline-grabbing, bold assertions increasingly digestible, like the one from hedge fund hired-gun Harry Markopolos on General Electric (GE) or rumormongering like the recent one that drove the recent pop in shares of Tesla Motors (TSLA).

Rumors and assertions are tricky things, and while some may turn out to be true, others may only have a whisper of truth, if any at all. In the case of Markopolos, he’s working with an unnamed hedge fund partner, and while it would be wrong to cast wide dispersion on the industry, the reality is it is hurting. In 2018, eVestment hedge fund performance data showed the overall hedge fund industry returned negative 5.08%. While the industry is in positive territory on a year-to-date basis this year, it still meaningfully lags the major market indexes.

The bottom line is that in a market environment that is teaming with uncertainty on several sides, it is even more important that investors continue to focus on the data rather than be led astray by rumors and conjecture. Whether it is digging into a company’s financial filings; cross referencing conference call transcripts across a company’s competitors, customers and suppliers; or wading deep into the economic data, now more than ever it is important to do the homework rather than simply piling onto an idea that could simply be one person talking his or her trade book.  In our case, we’ll continue to assess and revisit the tailwinds that powers each of our investing themes each week through Thematic Signals and our Thematic Reading as well as our Thematic Signals podcast. 

Along the way, we may find something that helps put some of those potentially over-the- top assertions into perspective. One such example is found in the work by Bronte Capital that took Markopolos’ assertion that GE’s industrial margins near 15% are “too good to be true” to task by comparing them with similar margins at Honeywell (HON), Emerson Electric (EMR) and others. Once again, digging into the data adds that layer of context and perspective that is both helpful and insightful to investors.

In my experience, making a trade without doing the homework first and getting conviction on the thesis rarely yields the hopium expected. If the homework checks out, it offers confidence and conviction in the position. Periodically checking the data to determine if that thesis remains on track can either keep one’s conviction running high or alert to a potential issue. Not doing the homework leaves one vulnerable to a change they might not even known was coming.


Trade remains the focus on the stock market

As we approached the end of last week, the stock market was poised to move higher week over week, but as we saw it finished up on a very different note given all of Friday’s news. That news spanned from China threatening countermeasures on tariffs set to be instilled on Sept. 1, to the Fed being ready to extend the current recovery even though it remains upbeat about the domestic economy, to President Trump “ordering” U.S. companies to look for “alternative to China” and then raising tariffs on China after the market close. 

There was little question, we were once again seeing U.S.-China trade tensions escalate, raising questions as to what it could mean for the next round of trade talks. In other words, as we headed into one of the last summer weekends, U.S.-China trade uncertainty continued. While the market absorbed China’s escalation and Fed Chair Powell’s “at the ready when needed” comment, it was Trump’s latest trade salvo that reversed the market’s direction for the week leading all the major stock indices to finish down for the week. Trump said he would raise existing duties on $250 billion in Chinese products to 30% from 25% on October 1 and increase the 10% tariff on another $300 billion of Chinese goods set to take effect on September 1 to 15%.

The trade drama at the G-7 meeting continued over the weekend, and it appeared the market was going to start this week off with more than a whimper given that last night US stock market futures were down more than 1%. However, like any good drama that has a number of twists, this morning President Trump shared that China wants to make a trade deal, which served to walk back last week’s jump in trade tensions. 

My stance on the trade war has been a combination of hope, patience and details. Hope for a trade deal, patience realizing it would take time to come together and that the details of any trade agreement matter. Despite the purported trade related developments today, my stance remains unchanged. 


Boosting our Disney price target following D23’s Disney+ focus

While many were watching the political and trade events unfold at the G-7 meeting over the weekend, there was another gathering of note – D23 2019 at which Walt Disney (DIS) shared quite a bit about its upcoming Disney+ service that is set to launch on November 12. As I’ve said before, that service not only grows Disney’s exposure to our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, it’s also going to change how Wall Street values both DIS shares as well as those for Netflix (NFLX)

On its own Disney+ will cost users $6.99 a month, or $69.99 for a full year, but together with ESPN+ and ad-supported Hulu the bundle will run customers $12.99 per month, which is on par with the standard plan offered by Netflix that allows for two screens to be watching at the same time. The starter price for Disney+ allows for up to support for four simultaneous streams with 4K included. That’s quite a difference, and one that runs the risk of eating into Netflix’s business, particularly at the margin as Middle-class Squeeze consumers tally up how much they are spending on all of their streaming video and music as well as other subscription services

During D23 Disney showcased a plethora of Disney+ exclusive content ranging from its Star Wars to Marvel universes. On the Marvel front, Disney+ will include seven live action programs that are expected to tie into the active Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that span existing characters and introduce new ones as well. While some may be missing the original Marvel streaming content that was found on Netflix, the upcoming Marvel content on Disney+ will continue the interlocking nature of the box office films that culminated in this summer’s blockbuster Avengers: Endgame. 

The original programming will be dribbled out over the coming quarters, but at launch Disney+ is expected to contain approximately 7,000 episodes of television series and 400 to 500 movies. According to Disney CEO Bob Iger, almost every single movie in the Disney catalog will eventually be available on the service. That is expected to pale in comparison to the sheer volume of content found on Netflix, which according to Ampere Analysis will be roughly eight times bigger than Disney+’s launch lineup. That may help explain the initial price point for Disney+ but what the service has going for it is it will be the only place one can find some of the biggest franchises in entertainment. That’s very much a page out of the Disney park playbook, and the odds are certainly high that Disney will leverage the content found on Disney+ across its merchandising and park businesses. It was also revealed that Disney and Target (TGT) will partner to open Disney shops inside Target locations, which should only add to the Disney merchandizing business. 

The looming question is to what degree will Disney+ attract subscribers? A far better sense will be had once the service goes live, but that hasn’t stopped Wall Street for putting forth expectations. Wedbush expects Disney to add between 10 million and 15 million subscribers to its service each year until they reach around 45 million. For context, that compares to roughly 60 million Netflix US subscribers and other firms are calling for a faster sign-up rate at Disney+ given the combination of cost and content. 

  • With details surrounding Disney+ becoming clearer, we are boosting our price target on Walt Disney (DIS) shares to $150 from $125. As subscriber data for Disney+ is shared, we’ll continue to refine our price target. 


What to watch this week

On the corporate earnings front this week, the parade of retail earnings will continue with J.Jill (JILL), Chico’s FAS (CHS), Tiffany & Co. (TIF), Best Buy (BBY), Ulta Beauty (ULTA), and Dollar Tree (DLTR) on tap to report, among others. In each of those reports, I’ll be looking for signals relating to our Living the Life, Digital Lifestyle, Aging of the Population, and Middle-class Squeeze investing themes. 

Beyond that cohort, we also have Sanderson Farms (SAFM) reporting and it will be interesting to see what it says about the growing prevalence of meat alternatives that are part of our Cleaner Living investing theme. . Yesterday, Cleaner Living Index company Beyond Meat (BYND) announced it will start testing plant-based fried chicken with YUM Brand’s (YUM) KFC in Atlanta beginning today, August 27. In keeping with that theme, we’ll be comparing and contrasting results at Campbell Soup (CPG) and Hain Celestial (HAIN) given the shifting preference among consumers for healthier foods and snacks. 

Also this week, specialty contractor and one-time Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader Dycom Industries (DY) will issue its quarterly results and guidance, both of which should offer a view on 5G network buildout for its key customers that include AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ). Given that Nokia (NOK) shares on the Select List, this will be a report worth digging into.   

While the number of economic data release last week were relatively light, they did pack quite a punch and that continued today with the July Durable Orders Report. While its headline figure showed a better than expected increase, excluding transportation, aircraft and defense to focus on core capital goods the data revealed a 0.4% increase in July, which followed the 0.9% increase in June. Sucking some of the air out of that improvement, core capital goods shipments in July dropped 0.7%, which will weigh on September quarter GDP forecasts. Over the coming days, we’ll get several other pieces of economic July data including trade inventories and Personal Income & Spending reports. 

Coming off a better-than-expected July Retail Sales report, we expect investors will be closely watching the July Personal Income & Spending report to gauge the degree to which consumers can be counted on to power the economy in the second half of the year. In addition to the usual monthly economic data, this week will also bring us the second GDP estimate for the June quarter. As focused as some might be on that revision, we here at Tematica far more focused on what the continued slowdown in the current quarter means for the market and investors. 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Companies continue to serve up weaker guidance

WEEKLY ISSUE: Companies continue to serve up weaker guidance

Key points inside this issue

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are earnings

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

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

 

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

 

Tematica Investing

 December Retail Sales shock some, confirm Costco and others

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Turning to this week’s data

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

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

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

 

Here come Universal Display and Mobile World Congress 2019

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Reversing Course on Lending Club Calls

WEEKLY ISSUE: Reversing Course on Lending Club Calls

Key points inside this issue

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are earnings

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

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

 

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

 

Tematica Investing

 December Retail Sales shock some, confirm Costco and others

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Turning to this week’s data

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

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

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

 

Here come Universal Display and Mobile World Congress 2019

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

 

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

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

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

 

Tematica Options+

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

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

 

Del Frisco’s to report on March 12

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

 

Weekly Issue: Streaming Services and the Middle Class Squeeze

Weekly Issue: Streaming Services and the Middle Class Squeeze

Key points inside this issue

  • Stocks continue to melt higher on hopes, but details will matter in the end
  • Our price target on Middle-Class Squeeze company Costco Wholesale (COST) remains $250.
  • Netflix: Mark your calendars for Apple and Disney events
  • Taking a look at LendingClub (LC) shares as consumer debt climbs

 

Sorry, we’re a day late with your weekly issue. I’m just back from InsideETFs 2019, the industry event for the exchange-traded (ETF) industry. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended the event, and attendees continue to hear about the uptake of ETFs, as well as the growing number of differentiated strategies to be had. Some, in my opinion, are faddish in nature, looking to capture assets even though their strategies may not be ones that survive more than a few years. We’ve got a long issue this week, so I’ll suffice to say that such ETFs are not thematic investing, but rather trend investing and we’re already starting to see several of those older trend products being repositioned to something else.

As we close out this week, we’ll be halfway through the first quarter of 2019. Hard to believe, as we have yet to go through the swarm earnings reports from retailers, but it’s true. Given what appears to be the rollbacking of items that weighed on the stock market during the last few months of 2018, we’ve seen all the major stock market indices rebound hard, even though the global economy continues to slow. Once again, this has made the US the best house in the neighborhood, which has likely bid up assets and made the dollar a headwind to multinational companies in the process. As we are fonding of saying, the devil is in the details and that includes any would be progress on US-China trade and Congress with immigration reform. We remain cautiously optimistic, especially on the China trade front, but recognize that more time is likely to be needed until a Trump-sized “big deal” can be reached.

As we get set for the second half of the quarter, we here at Tematica will continue to not only watch the data and our Thematic Signals to assess what’s the next likely step for the market from here, but also the happenings in Washington on trade and infrastructure.

 

Tematica Investing

Odds are, the Thematic Leaders have seen some lift from the sharp rebound in the market thus far in 2019. As we can see in the chart above, several of them are going gangbusters, including Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), Netflix (NFLX), Alibaba (BABA) and Axon Enterprises (AXXN). This morning we’ll get the first Retail Sales report since before the federal government shutdown, and in my view, it will more than likely continue to show what it did during all of 2018 – digital shopping taking share and Middle-Class Squeeze leader Costco Warehouse (COST) continuing to win consumer wallet share.

On a reported basis, Costco’s January same-store sales rose 6.6% (7.3% excluding the impact of gasoline prices and foreign exchange). Exiting the month, Costco operated 768 warehouse locations vs. 746 this time last year, a 3% year over year, which reflects its stated path to open more locations in 2019, allowing for the steady growth of its high margin membership fee revenue stream. In my view, this lays the groundwork for a favorable earnings report from Costco on March 7, which is also when it will publish its February sales results.

  • Our price target on Middle-Class Squeeze company Costco Wholesale (COST) remains $250.

 

Netflix: Mark your calendars for Apple and Disney

While we have our calendars out and are marking them for that upcoming Costco date I mentioned early, let’s also circle March 25th, which is the rumored date of Apple’s next event. Per the Apple rumor mill, the company will not only showcase its new news subscription service (say that three times), but also unveil its video service as well. This video service falls into the category of one of the best, worst kept secrets, given the number of deals it has inked for original shows and movies. The news subscription service, which is expected to be called Apple News Magazines, comes after Apple acquired Texture, the would-be Netflix (NFLX) of magazines last year.

While we could see a new device or two, this event will be focused primarily on Apple’s Services business, which it is using to further its position inside our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.  Much like Proctor & Gamble’s (PG) Gillette razor blade business, I would not be surprised if Apple adopts a similar mindset with its devices being the razor that gets replaced periodically, while its far more profitable Services business is the one that people consume on a frequent basis.

Soon after Apple’s event, Disney will hold its annual Investor Day on April 11th at which it is expected to unveil its much discussed, but yet to be seen Disney streaming service dubbed Disney+. Given its robust library of films, content, and characters, Disney should not be underestimated on this front, and in my view much like Apple and its Services business, success with Disney+ could change the way Wall Street values DIS shares. Key items to watch will be the Disney+ price point, original content rollout, and subscriber growth.

Stepping back, if one were to argue that we are on the path to a crowd of streaming services between Netflix, Amazon (AMZN), Hulu, CBS, NBC, AT&T (T), and now Apple and Disney, I would have to agree. In many ways, we’re heading for cable-TV without the cable box, but on an ala carte basis. While we’ve argued that consumers will go to where there is great content, the more streaming services there are the more likely we see the proliferation of good or not so good content. The risk they run is that just like cable channels that need to be filled with content, so too will their streaming services. Also too, one unknown is how many services will a person subscribe to? Past a certain point, consumers will balk, especially if all they’ve succeeded in doing is replicating that high cable bill they sought to originally sought to escape.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching the unveiling and uptake of these new services from Apple and Disney with an eye for what it may mean for Digital Lifestyle company Netflix (NFLX). One interesting item to watch will be to see what is actually included in the Disney and Apple services at launch and over time. Both companies are rumored to be working on streaming gaming services as are Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL), which to date is something Netflix has resisted at least publicly. If Apple were to bundle a gaming, video and news service along with Apple Music into one digital content bundle, that would offer some consumer wallet leverage over other single, stand-alone services.

 

Taking a look at LendingClub shares

Earlier this week, Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins posted a Thematic Signal for our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme following the news that a record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments. Lenore went on to show some additional data that consumer loans from banks are in contraction mode, which as we know is a sign the US economy is not going gangbusters.

What we are seeing is the consumer looking to get their financial house in order, most likely after ringing up credit card, auto loan and student debt over the last several quarters. A new report from LendingTree (TREE) points to total credit card debt having climbed to more than $1 trillion in under five years, with more people using personal loans to manage existing debt. This has led the amount owed on personal loans to double what it was five years ago and the number of outstanding loans to rise some 50% in the last three years. According to the report’s findings, managing existing debt was the most popular reason for a personal loan, representing 61% of all loan requests in 2018. Of that percentage, 39% of borrowers plan to use their loans to consolidate debt, while 22% planned to use it to refinance credit cards.

From a stock detective’s point of view, the question to ask is what company is poised to benefit from this aspect of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme?

One candidate is LendingClub (LC), which 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 offering. 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 deciding on 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 of LendingClub’s partnership program.

LendingClub’s second largest revenue stream is derived from investors 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.

In the past LendingClub was tainted with uncertainty given several investigations, but in mid-December, it settled with the SEC and DOJ, with the SEC stating:

“The SEC’s Enforcement Division determined not to recommend charges against LendingClub Corporation, which promptly self-reported its executives’ misconduct following a review initiated by its board of directors, thoroughly remediated, and provided extraordinary cooperation with the agency’s investigation.”

The SEC’s comments are a positive affirmation of the company’s internal procedures and policies, which also helps reduce the potential negative impact from the still-remaining Federal Trade Commission complaint. The FTC’s complaint against LendingClub charged it has misled consumers and has been deducting hidden fees from loan proceeds issued to borrowers.

Those recent developments have improved the company’s risk profile at a time when its core business has been growing given Middle-Class Squeeze pains being felt by more consumers. According to data TransUnion, subprime personal loan balances have been climbing since 2014 and are forecast to increase 20% this year to a record $156.3 billion.

Here’s the thing, the year-end shopping season isn’t just for shopping,  it’s also the seasonally strongest time of year for subprime loan originations, which according to TransUnion rose to 5 million loans at the end of 2018. That sets up what is likely to be a favorable December quarter earnings report from LendingClub when it issues those results next week (Tuesday, Feb. 19). The thing is I continue to see far more upside to be had with Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale, which is not only growing its very profitable membership fee income stream the company is also a dividend payer.

 

Weekly Issue: Another company poised to benefit from the Middle Class Squeeze

Weekly Issue: Another company poised to benefit from the Middle Class Squeeze

Key points inside this issue

Sorry, we’re a day late with your weekly issue. I’m just back from InsideETFs 2019, the industry event for the exchange-traded (ETF) industry. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended the event, and attendees continue to hear about the uptake of ETFs, as well as the growing number of differentiated strategies to be had. Some, in my opinion, are faddish in nature, looking to capture assets even though their strategies may not be ones that survive more than a few years. We’ve got a long issue this week, so I’ll suffice to say that such ETFs are not thematic investing, but rather trend investing and we’re already starting to see several of those older trend products being repositioned to something else.

As we close out this week, we’ll be halfway through the first quarter of 2019. Hard to believe, as we have yet to go through the swarm earnings reports from retailers, but it’s true. Given what appears to be the rollbacking of items that weighed on the stock market during the last few months of 2018, we’ve seen all the major stock market indices rebound hard, even though the global economy continues to slow. Once again, this has made the US the best house in the neighborhood, which has likely bid up assets and made the dollar a headwind to multinational companies in the process. As we are fonding of saying, the devil is in the details and that includes any would be progress on US-China trade and Congress with immigration reform. We remain cautiously optimistic, especially on the China trade front, but recognize that more time is likely to be needed until a Trump-sized “big deal” can be reached.

As we get set for the second half of the quarter, we here at Tematica will continue to not only watch the data and our Thematic Signals to assess what’s the next likely step for the market from here, but also the happenings in Washington on trade and infrastructure.

 

Tematica Investing

Odds are, the Thematic Leaders have seen some lift from the sharp rebound in the market thus far in 2019. As we can see in the chart above, several of them are going gangbusters, including Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), Netflix (NFLX), Alibaba (BABA) and Axon Enterprises (AXXN). This morning we’ll get the first Retail Sales report since before the federal government shutdown, and in my view, it will more than likely continue to show what it did during all of 2018 – digital shopping taking share and Middle-Class Squeeze leader Costco Warehouse (COST) continuing to win consumer wallet share.

On a reported basis, Costco’s January same-store sales rose 6.6% (7.3% excluding the impact of gasoline prices and foreign exchange). Exiting the month, Costco operated 768 warehouse locations vs. 746 this time last year, a 3% year over year, which reflects its stated path to open more locations in 2019, allowing for the steady growth of its high margin membership fee revenue stream. In my view, this lays the groundwork for a favorable earnings report from Costco on March 7, which is also when it will publish its February sales results.

  • Our price target on Middle-Class Squeeze company Costco Wholesale (COST) remains $250.

 

Netflix: Mark your calendars for Apple and Disney

While we have our calendars out and are marking them for that upcoming Costco date I mentioned early, let’s also circle March 25th, which is the rumored date of Apple’s next event. Per the Apple rumor mill, the company will not only showcase its new news subscription service (say that three times), but also unveil its video service as well. This video service falls into the category of one of the best, worst kept secrets, given the number of deals it has inked for original shows and movies. The news subscription service, which is expected to be called Apple News Magazines, comes after Apple acquired Texture, the would-be Netflix (NFLX) of magazines last year.

While we could see a new device or two, this event will be focused primarily on Apple’s Services business, which it is using to further its position inside our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.  Much like Proctor & Gamble’s (PG) Gillette razor blade business, I would not be surprised if Apple adopts a similar mindset with its devices being the razor that gets replaced periodically, while its far more profitable Services business is the one that people consume on a frequent basis.

Soon after Apple’s event, Disney will hold its annual Investor Day on April 11th at which it is expected to unveil its much discussed, but yet to be seen Disney streaming service dubbed Disney+. Given its robust library of films, content, and characters, Disney should not be underestimated on this front, and in my view much like Apple and its Services business, success with Disney+ could change the way Wall Street values DIS shares. Key items to watch will be the Disney+ price point, original content rollout, and subscriber growth.

Stepping back, if one were to argue that we are on the path to a crowd of streaming services between Netflix, Amazon (AMZN), Hulu, CBS, NBC, AT&T (T), and now Apple and Disney, I would have to agree. In many ways, we’re heading for cable-TV without the cable box, but on an ala carte basis. While we’ve argued that consumers will go to where there is great content, the more streaming services there are the more likely we see the proliferation of good or not so good content. The risk they run is that just like cable channels that need to be filled with content, so too will their streaming services. Also too, one unknown is how many services will a person subscribe to? Past a certain point, consumers will balk, especially if all they’ve succeeded in doing is replicating that high cable bill they sought to originally sought to escape.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching the unveiling and uptake of these new services from Apple and Disney with an eye for what it may mean for Digital Lifestyle company Netflix (NFLX). One interesting item to watch will be to see what is actually included in the Disney and Apple services at launch and over time. Both companies are rumored to be working on streaming gaming services as are Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL), which to date is something Netflix has resisted at least publicly. If Apple were to bundle a gaming, video and news service along with Apple Music into one digital content bundle, that would offer some consumer wallet leverage over other single, stand-alone services.

 

Taking a look at LendingClub shares

Earlier this week, Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins posted a Thematic Signal for our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme following the news that a record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments. Lenore went on to show some additional data that consumer loans from banks are in contraction mode, which as we know is a sign the US economy is not going gangbusters.

What we are seeing is the consumer looking to get their financial house in order, most likely after ringing up credit card, auto loan and student debt over the last several quarters. A new report from LendingTree (TREE) points to total credit card debt having climbed to more than $1 trillion in under five years, with more people using personal loans to manage existing debt. This has led the amount owed on personal loans to double what it was five years ago and the number of outstanding loans to rise some 50% in the last three years. According to the report’s findings, managing existing debt was the most popular reason for a personal loan, representing 61% of all loan requests in 2018. Of that percentage, 39% of borrowers plan to use their loans to consolidate debt, while 22% planned to use it to refinance credit cards.

From a stock detective’s point of view, the question to ask is what company is poised to benefit from this aspect of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme?

One candidate is LendingClub (LC), which 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 offering. 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 deciding on 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 of LendingClub’s partnership program.

LendingClub’s second largest revenue stream is derived from investors 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.

In the past LendingClub was tainted with uncertainty given several investigations, but in mid-December, it settled with the SEC and DOJ, with the SEC stating:

“The SEC’s Enforcement Division determined not to recommend charges against LendingClub Corporation, which promptly self-reported its executives’ misconduct following a review initiated by its board of directors, thoroughly remediated, and provided extraordinary cooperation with the agency’s investigation.”

The SEC’s comments are a positive affirmation of the company’s internal procedures and policies, which also helps reduce the potential negative impact from the still-remaining Federal Trade Commission complaint. The FTC’s complaint against LendingClub charged it has misled consumers and has been deducting hidden fees from loan proceeds issued to borrowers.

Those recent developments have improved the company’s risk profile at a time when its core business has been growing given Middle-class Squeeze pains being felt by more consumers. According to data TransUnion, subprime personal loan balances have been climbing since 2014 and are forecast to increase 20% this year to a record $156.3 billion.

Here’s the thing, the year-end shopping season isn’t just for shopping,  it’s also the seasonally strongest time of year for subprime loan originations, which according to TransUnion rose to 5 million loans at the end of 2018. That sets up what is likely to be a favorable December quarter earnings report from LendingClub when it issues those results next week (Tuesday, Feb. 19). The thing is I continue to see far more upside to be had with Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader Costco Wholesale, which is not only growing its very profitable membership fee income stream the company is also a a dividend payer.

 

Tematica Options+

 

Adding a call option play on Lending Club

While we aren’t adding Lending Club shares to the Thematic Leaders, we will look to capitalize on the opportunity ahead of the company’s December quarter earnings report by adding the Lending Club (LC) March 2019 4.00 calls (LC 190315C0000400)that closed last night at 0.10. Given the tight trading pattern of these calls, I’m not recommending a stop loss level just yet, but as they trend higher I plan to do so.

 

Boosting the stop loss on our Del Frisco’s calls

The September 2019 10.00 calls for Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) calls that we added last week climbed more than 58% over the last several trading sessions. While we’ll continue to hold these calls as Del Frisco’s continues to review potential takeout bids, we will boost our stop loss on the calls from 0.30 to 0.60, which also happens to be our entry point.

 

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

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

Key points in this issue:

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

 

As expected, more negative earnings revisions roll in

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

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

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

 

Tematica Investing

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Nokia gets several boosts ahead of its earnings report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

USA Technologies gets an “interim” CFO

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

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

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

 

Tematica Options+

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Key points in this issue:

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

 

As expected, more negative earnings revisions roll in

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

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

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

 

Tematica Investing

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Nokia gets several boosts ahead of its earnings report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

USA Technologies gets an “interim” CFO

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

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

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

 

 

 

Apple’s negative pre-announcement serves as a reminder to the number of risks that have accumulated

Apple’s negative pre-announcement serves as a reminder to the number of risks that have accumulated

 

We are “breaking in” to share my thoughts with you on the implications of Apple’s (AAPL) downside December quarter earnings news last night. Quickly this is exactly of what I was concerned about in early December, but rather than take a victory lap, let’s discuss what it means and what we’re going to do. 

Last night we received a negative December quarter earnings preannouncement from Apple (AAPL), which is weighing on both AAPL shares as well as the overall market. It serves as a reminder to the number of risks that have accumulated during the December quarter – the slowing global economy, including here at home; the US-China trade war; Brexit and other geopolitical uncertainty in the eurozone; the strong dollar; shrinking liquidity and a Fed that looks to remain on its rate hike path while also unwinding its balance sheet. Lenore Hawkins and I talked about these at length on the Dec. 21 podcast, which you can listen to here.

In short, a growing list of worries that are fueling uncertainty in the market and in corporate boardrooms. When the outlook is less than clear, companies tend to issue conservative guidance which may conflict with Wall Street consensus expectations. In the past when that has happened, it’s led to a re-think in growth prospects for both the economy, corporate profits and earnings, the mother’s milk for stock prices.

These factors and what they are likely to mean when companies begin issuing their December quarter results and 2019 outlooks in the coming weeks, were one of the primary reasons we added the ProShares Short S&P 500 (SH) shares to our holdings in just under a month ago. While the market fell considerably during December, our SH shares rose 5% offering some respite from the market pain. As expectations get reset, and odds are they will, we will continue to focus on the thematic tailwinds and thematic signals that have been and will remain our North Star for the Thematic Leaders and the larger Select List.

 

What did Apple have to say?

In a letter to shareholders last night, Apple CEO Tim Cook shared that revenue for the quarter would come in near $84 billion for the quarter vs. the consensus estimate of $91.5 billion and $88.3 billion, primarily due to weaker than expected iPhone sales. In the letter, which can be read here, while Apple cited several known headwinds for the quarter that it baked into its forecast such as iPhone launch timing, the dollar, supply constraints, and growing global economic weakness, it fingered stronger than expected declines in the emerging markets and China in particular.

Per the letter, most of the “revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac, and iPad.”

Cook went on to acknowledge the slowing China economy, which we saw evidence of in yesterday’s December Markit data for China. Per that report,

“The Caixin China General Manufacturing PMI dipped to 49.7 in December, the first time since May 2017 that the reading has been below 50, the mark that separates expansion from contraction. The sub-index for new orders slid below the breakeven point of 50 for the first time since June 2016, reflecting decreasing demand in the manufacturing sector.”

In our view here at Tematica, that fall in orders likely means China’s economy will be starting off 2019 in contraction mode. This will weigh on corporate management teams as they formulate their formal guidance to be issued during the soon to be upon us December quarter earnings season.

Also, in his letter, Cook called out the “rising trade tensions with the United States”  and the impact on iPhone demand in particular.

In typical Apple fashion, it discussed the long-term opportunities, including those in China, and other positives, citing that Services, Mac, iPad, Wearables/Home/Accessories) combined to grow almost 19% year-over-year during the quarter with records being set in a number of other countries. While this along with the $130 billion in cash that Apple has on its balance sheet exiting the December quarter, bode well for the long-term as well as its burgeoning efforts in healthcare and streaming entertainment, Apple shares came under pressure last night and today.

 

Odds are there will more negative earnings report to come

In light of the widespread holding of Apple shares across investor portfolios, both institutional and individual, as well as its percentage in the major market indices, we’re in for some renewed market pressure. There is also the reality that Apple’s decision to call out the impact of U.S.-China trade will create a major ripple effect that will lead to investors’ renewed focus on the potential trade-related downside to many companies and on the negative effect of China’s slowing economy.

In recent months we’ve heard other companies ranging from General Motors (GM) to FedEx (FDX) express concerns over the trade impact, but Apple’s clearly calling out its impact will have reverberations on companies that serve markets tied to both the smartphone and China-related demand. Overnight we saw key smartphone suppliers ranging from Skyworks Solutions (SWKS) and Qorvo (QRVO) come under pressure, and the same can be said for luxury goods companies as well. We’d note that Skyworks and Qorvo are key customers for Select List resident AXT Inc (AXTI, which means if we follow the Apple revenue cut through the supply chain, it will land on AXT and its substrate business.

All of the issues discussed above more than likely mean Apple will not be the only company to issues conservative guidance. Buckle up, it’s going to be a volatile few weeks ahead.

 

Positives to watch for in the coming weeks and months

While the near-term earnings season will likely mean additional pain, there are drivers that could lift shares higher from current levels in the coming months. These include a trade deal with China that has boasts a headline win for the US, but more importantly contains positive progress on key issues such as R&D technology theft, cybercrimes and the like – in other words, some of the meaty issues. There is also the Federal Reserve and expected monetary policy path that currently calls for two rate hikes this year. If the Fed is data dependent, then it likely knows of the negative wealth effect to be had following the drop in the stock market over the last few months.

Per Moody’s economist Mark Zandi, if stocks remained where there were as of last night’s close, it would equate to a $6 trillion drop in household wealth over the last 12-15 months. Per Zani, that would trim roughly 0.5% to 2019 GDP – again if the stock market stayed at last night’s close for the coming weeks and months. As we’re seeing today, and given my comments about the upcoming earnings season, odds are that 2019 GDP cut will be somewhat larger. That would likely be an impetus for the Fed to “slow its roll” on interest rates or at least offer dovish comments when discussing the economy.

Complicating matters is the current government shutdown, which has both the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis closed. Even though there will be some data to be had, such as tomorrow’s December 2018 Employment Report from the Labor Department, it means the usual steady flow of economic data will not be had until the government re-opens. No data makes it rather difficult to judge the speed of the economy from all of us, including the Fed.

Given all of the above, we’ll continue to keep our more defensive positions companies like McCormick & Co. (MKC), Costco Wholesale (COST), and the ProShares Short S&P 500 shares intact. We’ll continue to watch input costs and what they mean for corporate profits at the margin – case in point is Del Frisco’s (DFRG), which is benefitting from not only falling protein costs but has been approached by an activist investor that could put the company in play. With Apple, Dycom Industries (DY), and AXT, we will see 5G networks lit this year here in the US, which will soon be followed by other such networks across the globe in the coming years. Samsung, Lenovo/Motorola and others have announced 5G smartphones will be shipping by mid-2019, and we expect Apple to once again ride that tipping point in 2020. That along with its growing Services business and other efforts to increase the stickiness of iPhone (medical, health, streaming, payments services), keeps us long-term bulls on AAPL shares.

When not if but when, the stock market finds its footing, which likely won’t be until after the December quarter earnings season at the soonest, we will look to strategically scale into a number of positions for the Thematic Leaders and the Select List.

 

Weekly Issue December 17 2018

Weekly Issue December 17 2018

Key points inside this issue:

  • The Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey surprises the market
  • Costco stumbles, but it is far from down and out
  • Thematic confirmation had in the November Retail Sales Report
  • Digging into Friday’s other economic reports
  • What to watch this week
  • Holiday Housekeeping

The Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey surprises the market

What looked to be shaping up as a positive week for the stock market turned on its head Friday following renewed concerns over the pace of the global economy. As we’ve talked about recently, the vector and velocity of the latest economic reports suggest a slowing economy and that is fueling questions over the top and bottom-line growth prospects for 2019.

Tossing some logs on the that fire late last week was the new survey findings from the Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey that showed almost half (48.6%) of US chief financial officers believe the United States will be in recession by the end of next year while 82% of CFOs surveyed believe that a recession will begin by the end of 2020. That’s quite different than the Wall Street consensus, which per The Wall Street Journal’s Economic Forecasting Survey sees the speed of the economy slowing from 3.5% in the September 2018 quarter to 2.5% in the current one to 2.4% in the first half of 2019 followed by 2.2% in the back half of the year.

This revelation has added to the list of concerns that I’ve been discussing of late and adds to the growing worries over EPS growth prospects in 2019.

 

Costco stumbles, but it is far from out

Last Thursday night, Costco Wholesale (COST), our Middle-Class Squeeze Thematic Leader, reported an EPS beat by $0.05 per share for the quarter, but revenue came in a tad short at up 10.3% year over year, or $34.3 billion vs. the expected $34.66 billion. Same-store sales for the quarter rose 8.8% (+7.5% ex-gasoline and currency), which is well above anything we’ve seen for the September-November period per Friday’s November Retail Sales report save for digital shopping (Non-store retailers) and gas station sales – more on that shortly.

Despite the positive EPS, COST shares fell 8.6% on Friday.

The issue with Costco was the margin profile as reported operating income was essentially flat year over year. When combined with the top line increase vs. the year-ago quarter it means the company’s operating margin hit 2.7% vs. 3.0% in the year-ago quarter, and 3.2% this past August quarter. Part of the issue was the jump up in pre-opening expenses for new warehouse locations which rose by 6% quarter over quarter. The real culprit was the step up in merchandising costs, which climbed 10.8% year over year for the November quarter vs. 5.4% year over year in the September quarter. Clearly, Costco is seeing the impact of not only higher prices but also the impact of tariffs associated with the U.S.-China trade war.

Despite that, the core basics at the company – foot traffic, renewal rates, and membership growth – continue to fire on all cylinders. That to me makes Costco one of the best-positioned retailers, and the fact that its e-commerce business continues to blossom is positive as well. In all of 2019, Costco looks to open 20-23 net new warehouses, which equates to an increase of 2.5%-3.0% year over year. This will likely drive pre-opening expenses higher in the coming months, but given the favorable metrics associated with each new location over the medium to longer-term, we’ll take it, especially if the economy slows more than expected. Odds are that will drive more consumers to Costco than not.

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

 

Thematic confirmation in the November Retail Sales Report

Looking over Friday’s November Retail Sales Report, core Retail Sales rose 4.0% year over year with strong performance as expected for Non-store Retailers (+10.8% year over year), Gasoline Stations (+8.2%) and Food Service & Drinking Places (+5.6%). To me, those first and third categories ring positive for our Digital Lifestyle and Living the Life investing themes. That means I see those as positive signs for our thematic and holiday shopping positioned companies, which includes the aforementioned Costco, but also Amazon (AMZN), United Parcel Service (UPS), McCormick & Co. (MKC), International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) and Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG).

Back to the November Retail Sales report, while the sequential overall retail comparisons came in either as expected or slightly better depending on the forecast one is looking at, what’s likely to catch the market’s attention is the sequential drop in year over year retail sales growth that was had in November. Again, year over year November retail sales growth rose 4.0%, which was down compared to the October year over year increase of 4.5%.

Given the growing amount of data that points to a slowing domestic economy, one that is driven meaningfully by the consumer, odds are market watchers will not love what they saw in those year over year comparisons. Add to it that a recent Gallup poll found that Americans plan to spend less on holiday gifts today than they expected back in October and less than they expected to spend in 2017. The $91 decline in expected spending since October is “one of the steeper mid-season declines, exceeded only by a $185 drop that occurred in 2008, as the Wall Street financial crisis was unfolding, and a $102 drop in 2009 during the 2007-2009 recession.”

Clearly, those latest data points weighed on the overall stock market last week, but those weren’t the only ones.

 

Digging into Friday’s other economic reports

The November Retail Sales report wasn’t the only set of key data that weighed on the market last Friday. The November Industrial Production Report showed a flat manufacturing economy following the modest dip in October. On the December Flash PMI reports, the U.S. hit a 19-month low for the month with softer new order growth, while “Lower oil-related costs contributed to the slowest rate of input price inflation since the start of the year.” Turning to the eurozone, its Composite Output PMI hit 51.3, down from 52.7 in November, and reached a four-year low. The Flash Manufacturing PMI data for Japan was better, as it rose to 52.4 for December up from 52.2 in November, but that is hardly what we would call a robust figure given the expansion/contraction line at the 50.0 level. While new orders activity improved in Japan, new export orders fell, signaling a change of direction, which supports the notion of a slowing global economy.

This data along with the back and forth on U.S.-China trade, Brexit developments, Italy budget concerns, protests in France, and the potential government shutdown have all raised investor uncertainty levels. We see this in the current “Extreme Fear” (9) reading on the CNN Business Fear & Greed Index, which is little changed over the last few weeks. We’ve seen this play out in the stock market as the number of stocks hitting new highs pales in comparison to hitting 52-week lows. As one likely suspects, we saw this play out in small cap stocks, which per the Russell 2000 last week, were once again the hardest hit of the major stock categories. Quarter to date, small cap stocks are down just under 17% quarter to date.

We saw a number of these concerns brewing as we exited September and entered the September- quarter earnings season. We have been careful in making additions to the Select List given what I’ve viewed as an environment that has been more skewed to risk than reward. Odds are that will continue to be the case between now and the end of the year, which means we will continue to be overly selective when it comes to deploying capital. For that reason, last week we added the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH) shares to our holdings to add some downside protection.

 

What to Watch This Week

Following last week’s rash of economic data, don’t ask me how or why but the Atlanta Fed saw fit to boost its GDP Now forecast for the current quarter to 3.0% from 2.4% last week. As subscribers know, I prefer the far more solid track record at the NY Fed and its Nowcast report, which now calls for the current quarter to be +2.4%, down from +2.44% last week. That’s in line with The Wall Street Journal’s Economic Forecasting Survey, but again that Duke poll is likely to be in the forefront of investor minds this week as more data is had. This includes several pieces of housing data — the November Housing Starts & Building Permits as well as November Existing Home Sales and the October NAHB Housing Market Index — as well as the November Durable Orders Report and November Personal Income & Spending data.

As I mentioned above, the number of economic numbers suggesting the global economy continues to slow are growing, which likely gives the Fed far more room to issue dovish comments after next week’s all but done December rate hike. In recent weeks as the Fed has once again signaled it will more than likely remain data dependent in 2019, we’ve seen a change in the futures market, which is now pricing in less than 20 basis points of rate hikes next year versus over 55 basis points just a few months ago. But we have to consider the reason behind this slower pace of rate hikes, which is the suggestion by recent data that the economy is far from overheating, which also adds to the core question we suspect investors and the market are asking: how fast/strong will EPS growth be in 2019?

As we prepare for Fed Chair Powell’s remarks, it’s not lost on me that we could very well see a “buy the rumor, sell the news” event following the FOMC meeting next week.

Heading down the final stretch of 2018, I’ll be looking at well-positioned companies relative to our investment themes that have been hard hit by the quarter to date move in the market. As of Friday’s market close, the S&P 500 was down X% quarter to date, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index and the small-cap heavy Russell 2000 were down 14% and nearly 17%, respectively, on that basis. One of the criteria that I’ll be focusing on as I weed through this growing list of contenders is favorable EPS growth year over year relative to the S&P 500. And, yes, when I say that I do mean to “real” EPS growth due to rising profit margins and expanding dollar profits instead of those lifted largely by buyback activities.

With that in mind, I’ll be paying close attention to a number of key earnings reports coming at us next week. These include Nike (NKE), Carmax (KMX), ConAgra (CAG), General Mills (GIS), Micron (MU), FedEx (FDX) and Darden Restaurants (DRI). Inside these reports and company commentaries, I’ll be looking for data points that to confirm our investment themes, the question of inflation vs. deflation and where it may be, and a last-minute update from FedEx on digital commerce for this holiday shopping season that we are all in the thick of. Also, among those reports is Del Frisco’s competitor – The Capital Grill, which is owned by Darden. I’ll be paying extra close attention to that report and what it means for our DFRG shares.

 

Holiday Housekeeping!

And that brings us to our Housekeeping note, which is this – given the way the Christmas and New Year’s holidays fall this year, barring any unforeseen issues that will require our attention and immediate action, we here at Tematica will be in “get ready for 2019” mode. That means we’ll be using the quiet holiday time to review the Thematic Leaders as well as positions on the Select List to ensure we are well prepared for the coming months ahead.

As such, we’re likely to be back the week of January 7th, although I can’t rule out the urge to share some thoughts with you sooner. For example, if the Fed says something that rolls the stock market’s eyes later this week, I’ll be sure to weigh in and share my thoughts. The same goes for the Darden earnings report I mentioned above and what it may mean for our DFRG shares.

We will have a new podcast episode or two before then, and we will be sharing a number of Thematic Signals over the coming weeks – if only those confirming signs for our investment themes would take a break. I’m only kidding, but of course, I love how recognizable and relatable the themes are in and around our daily lives.

To you and your loved ones, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year! See you 2019!!