The greying of America’s workforce runs the risk of inflation?

The greying of America’s workforce runs the risk of inflation?

We here at Tematica have been discussing the growing number of headwinds to the global economy, but one that even we have not zeroed in on is a somewhat hidden cost associated with our Aging of the Population investing theme. We know people are living longer than ever before, which means they either need to either amass more retirement savings or they will be working longer lest they fall victim to the downside of our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme. In some cases, would be retirees may want to work longer to remain active as well as get paid and keep health benefits.

There are two headwinds associated with this. First, the longer working time frame limits the number of jobs, particularly non-entry level ones, that in the past would have opened up to other workers. Second, older workers tend to drive up the cost of wages and benefits, which means companies potentially face a wave of higher expenses in the coming years. To combat that pressure and keep delivering on the bottom line to shareholders, we could see price increases become the norm in the next coming years… just as the Federal Reserve is re-thinking its inflation target.

America’s workforce is getting grayer by the second, a phenomenon that some employers regard as a competitive disadvantage: older workers drive up the cost of wages and benefits, and can impede the progress of younger workers—or so the conventional thinking goes.

People age 55 and older are expected to make up a quarter of the U.S. workforce by 2026, and the number of workers ages 65 to 74 is projected to grow by 4.2% a year between 2016 and 2026—versus just 0.6% for the workforce overall.

While more people are staying on the job longer because they haven’t saved enough to retire, many older workers are extending their careers by choice. “More people want to work longer because they’re living longer,” says Steve Vernon, a consulting research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of Retirement Game-Changers.

Source: Perks for Older Workers Are the Next Big Workplace Trend – Barron’s

Weekly Issue: Looking Around the Bend of the Current Rebound Rally

Weekly Issue: Looking Around the Bend of the Current Rebound Rally

 

Stock futures are surging this morning in a move that has all the major domestic stock market indices pointing up between 1.5% for the S&P 500 to 2.2% for the Nasdaq Composite Index. This surge follows the G20 Summit meeting of President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping news that the US and China will hold off on additional tariffs on each other’s goods at the start of 2019 with trade talks to continue. What this means is for a period of time as the two countries look to hammer out a trade deal during the March quarter, the US will leave existing tariffs of 10% on more than $200 million worth of Chinese products in place rather than increase them to 25%.  If after 90 days the two countries are unable to reach an agreement, the tariff rate will be raised to 25% percent.

In my view, what we are seeing this morning is in our view similar to what we saw last week when Fed Chair Powell served up some dovish comments regarding the speed of interest rate hikes over the coming year – a sigh of relief in the stock market as expected drags on the economy may not be the headwinds previously expected. On the trade front, it’s that tariffs won’t escalate at the end of 2018 and at least for now it means one less negative revision to 2019 EPS expectations. In recent weeks, we’ve started to see the market price in the slowing economy and potential tariff hikes as 2019 EPS expectations for the S&P 500 slipped over the last two months from 10%+ EPS growth in 2019 to “just” 8.7% year over year. That’s down considerably from the now expected EPS growth of 21.6% this year vs. 2017, but we have to remember the benefit of tax reform will fade as it anniversaries. I expect this to ignite a question of what the appropriate market multiple should be for the 2019 rate of EPS growth as investors look past trade and the Fed in the coming weeks. More on that as it develops.

For now, I’ll take the positive performance these two events will have on the Thematic Leaders and the Select List; however, it should not be lost on us that issues remain. These include the slowing global economy that is allowing the Fed more breathing room in the pace of interest rate hikes as well as pending Brexit issues and the ongoing Italy-EU drama. New findings from Lending Tree (TREE) point to consumer debt hitting $4 trillion by the end of 2018, $1 trillion higher than less five years ago and at interest rates that are higher than five years ago. Talk about a confirming data point for our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme. And while oil prices have collapsed, offering a respite at the gas pump, we are seeing more signs of wage inflation that along with other input and freight costs will put a crimp in margins in the coming quarters. In other words, headwinds to the economy and corporate earnings persist.

On the US-China trade front, the new timeline equates to three months to negotiate a number of issues that have proved difficult in the past. These include forced technology transfer by U.S. companies doing business in China; intellectual-property protection that the U.S. wants China to strengthen; nontariff barriers that impede U.S. access to Chinese markets; and cyberespionage.

So, while the market gaps up today in its second sigh of relief in as many weeks, I’ll continue to be prudent with the portfolio and deploying capital in the near-term.  At the end of the day, what we need to see on the trade front is results – that better deal President Trump keeps talking about – rather than promises and platitudes. Until then, the existing tariffs will remain, and we run the risk of their eventual escalation if promises and platitudes do not progress into results.

 

The Stock Market Last Week

Last week we closed the books on November, and as we did that the stock market received a life preserver from Federal Reserve Chair Powell, which rescued them from turning in a largely across-the-board negative performance for the month. Powell’s comments eased the market’s concern over the pace of rate hikes in 2019 and the subsequent Fed November FOMC meeting minutes served to reaffirm that. As we shared Thursday, we see recent economic data, which has painted a picture of a slowing domestic as well as global economy, giving the Fed ample room to slow its pace of rate hikes. 

While expectations still call for a rate increase later this month, for 2019 the consensus is now looking for one to two hikes compared to the prior expectation of up to four. As we watch the velocity of the economy, we’ll also continue to watch the inflation front carefully given recent declines in the PCE Price Index on a year-over-year basis vs. wage growth and other areas that are ripe for inflation.

Despite Powell’s late-month “rescue,” quarter to date, the stock market is still well in the red no matter which major market index one chooses to look at. And as much as we like the action of the past week, the decline this quarter has erased much of the 2018 year-to-date gains. 

 

Holiday Shopping 2018 embraces the Digital Lifestyle

Also last week, we had the conclusion of the official kickoff to the 2018 holiday shopping season that spanned Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, and in some cases “extended Tuesday.” The short version is consumers did open their wallets over those several days, but as expected, there was a pronounced shift to online and mobile shopping this year, while bricks-and-mortar traffic continued to suffer. 

According to ShopperTrak, shopper visits were down 1% for the two-day period compared to last year, with a 1.7% decline in traffic on Black Friday and versus 2017. Another firm, RetailNext, found traffic to U.S. stores fell between 5% and 9% during Thanksgiving and Black Friday compared with the same days last year. For the Thanksgiving to Sunday 2018 period, RetailNext’s traffic tally fell 6.6% year over year. 

Where were shoppers? Sitting at home or elsewhere as they shopped on their computers, tablets and increasingly their mobile devices. According to the National Retail Federation, 41.4 million people shopped only online from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday. That’s 6.4 million more than the 34.7 million who shopped exclusively in stores. Thanksgiving 2018 was also the first day in 2018 to see $1 billion in sales from smartphones, according to Adobe, with shoppers spending 8% more online on Thursday compared with a year ago. Per Adobe, Black Friday online sales hit $6.22 billion, an increase of 23.7% from 2017, of which roughly 33% were made on smartphones, up from 29% in 2017.

The most popular day to shop online was Cyber Monday, cited by 67.4 million shoppers, followed by Black Friday with 65.2 million shoppers. On Cyber Monday alone, mobile transactions surged more than 55%, helping make the day the single largest online shopping day of all time in the United States at $7.9 billion, up 19% year over year. It also smashed the smartphone shopping record set on Thanksgiving as sales coming from smartphones hit $2 billion.

As Lenore Hawkins, Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist, and I discussed on last week’s Cocktail Investing podcast, the holiday shopping happenings were very confirming for our Digital Lifestyle investing theme. It was also served to deliver positive data points for several positions on the Select List and the Thematic Leader that is Amazon (AMZN). These include United Parcel Service (UPS), which I have long viewed as a “second derivative” play on the shift to digital shopping, but also Costco Wholesale (COST) and Alphabet/Google (GOOGL). Let’s remember that while we love McCormick & Co. (MKC) for “season’s eatings” the same can be said for Costco given its food offering, both fresh and packaged, as well as its beer and wine selection. For Google, as more consumers shop online it means utilizing its search features that also drive its core advertising business.

As we inch toward the Christmas holiday, I expect more data points to emerge as well as more deals from brick & mortar retailers in a bid to capture what consumer spending they can. The risk I see for those is profitless sales given rising labor and freight costs but also the investments in digital commerce they have made to fend off Amazon. Sales are great, but it has to translate into profits, which are the mother’s milk of EPS, and that as we know is one of the core drivers to stock prices.

 

Marriott hack reminds of cyber spending needs

Also last week, we learned of one of the larger cyber attacks in recent history as Marriott (MAR) shared that up to 500 million guests saw their personal information ranging from passport numbers, travel details and payment card data hacked at its Starwood business. As I wrote in the Thematic Signal in which I discussed this attack, it is the latest reminder in the need for companies to continually beef up their cybersecurity, and this is a profound tailwind for our Safety & Security investing theme as well as the  ETFMG Prime Cyber Security ETF (HACK) shares that are on the Select List.

 

The Week Ahead

Today, we enter the final month of 2018, and given the performance of the stock market so far in the December quarter it could very well be a photo finish to determine how the market finishes for the year. Helping determine that will not only be the outcome of the weekend’s G-20 summit, but the start of November economic data that begins with today’s ISM Manufacturing Index and the IHS Markit PMI data, and ends the week with the monthly Employment Report. Inside those two reports, we here at Tematica be assessing the speed of the economy in terms of order growth and job creation, as well as inflation in the form of wage growth. These data points and the others to be had in the coming weeks will help firm up current quarter consensus GDP expectations of 2.6%, per The Wall Street Journal’s Economic Forecasting Survey that is based on more than 60 economists, vs. 3.5% in the September quarter.

Ahead of Wednesday’s testimony by Federal Reserve Chair Powell on “The Economic Outlook” before Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, we’ll have several Fed heads making the rounds and giving speeches. Odds are they will reinforce the comments made by Powell and the November Fed FOMC meeting minutes that we talked about above. During Powell’s testimony, we can expect investors to parse his words in order to have a clear sense as to what the Fed’s view is on the speed of the economy, inflation and the need to adjust monetary policy, in terms of both the speed of future rate hikes and unwinding its balance sheet. Based on what we learn, Powell’s comments could either lead the market higher or douse this week’s sharp move higher in the stock market with cold water.

On the earnings front this week, we have no Thematic Leaders or Select List companies reporting but I’ll be monitoring results from Toll Brothers (TOL), American Eagle (AEO), Lululemon Athletica (LULU), Broadcom (AVGO) and Kroger (KR), among others. Toll Brothers should help us understand the demand for higher-end homes, something to watch relating to our Living the Life investing theme, while American Eagle and lululemon’s comments will no doubt offer some insight to the holiday shopping season. With Broadcom, we’ll be looking at its demand outlook to get a better handle on smartphone demand as well as the timing of 5G infrastructure deployments that are part of our Disruptive Innovators investing theme. Finally, with Kroger, it’s all about our Clean Living investing theme and to what degree Kroger is capturing that tailwind.

 

Weekly Issue: Adding to BABA and DRFG

Weekly Issue: Adding to BABA and DRFG

 

Key points in this issue:

  • The market hits new records, but the corporate warnings are growing
  • We are using the recent fall-off in both Rise of the New Middle-Class investment theme company Alibaba (BABA) and Guilty Pleasure theme company Del Frisco’s (DRFG) to scale into both positions. Our price targets remain $230 and $14, respectively.
  • We’re putting some perspective around the National Retail Federation’s 2018 Holiday Shopping forecast that was published yesterday.
  • As more holiday shopping forecasts emerge, and we progress through the upcoming earnings season I plan on revisiting our current $2,250 price target for Amazon (AMZN) shares. More details on the pending acquisition of PillPack are also a catalyst for us, as well as Wall Street, to boost that target.
  • Heading into the holiday shopping season, our price target on UPS shares remains $130.
  • We continue to see Costco Wholesale (COST) a prime beneficiary of the Middle-class Squeeze. Our price target on the shares remains $250.
  • What to watch in tomorrow’s September Employment Report? Wage growth.

 

The market hits new records, but the corporate warnings are growing

While we’ve seen new records for the stock market indices this week, we’ve also seen the S&P 500 little changed amid fresh September data that in aggregate points to a solid US economy. This week we received some favorable September economic news in the form of the ADP Employment Report as well as the ISM Services Index with both crushing expectations. Despite these reports, the S&P 500 has barely budged this week, which suggests to me investors are expecting a sloppy September quarter earnings season. No doubt there will be some bright spots, but in aggregate we are seeing a number of headwinds compared to this time last year that could weigh on corporate outlooks.

Already we’ve had a number of companies issuing softer than expected outlooks due to rising input and transportation costs, trade and tariffs, political wrangling ahead of the upcoming mid-term elections, renewed concerns over Italy and the eurozone, and the slower speed of the economy compared to the June quarter. A great example of that was had yesterday when shares of lighting and building management company Acuity Brands (AYI) fell more than 13% after it reported fiscal fourth-quarter profit that beat expectations, but margins fell amid a sharp rise in input costs. The company said costs were “well higher” for items such as electronic components, freight, wages, and certain commodity-related items, such as steel, due to “several economic factors, including previously announced and enacted tariffs and wage inflation due to the tight labor market…”

Acuity is not the first company to report this and odds are it will not be the last one as September quarter earnings begin to heat up next week. As the velocity of reports picks up, we could be in for a bumpy ride as investors reset their growth and profit expectations for the December quarter and 2019.  The good news is we are our eyes are wide open and we will be prepared to use any meaningful moves lower to scale into our Thematic Leader positions or other positions on the Select List provided our investment thesis remains intact. Pretty much what we’re doing this morning with Alibaba (BABA) and Del Frisco’s Restaurant (DFRG) shares. As I watch the earnings maelstrom unfold, I’ll also be keeping an eye on inflation-related comments to determine if the Fed might be falling behind the interest rate hike curve.

 

Adding to our Alibaba and Del Frisco Restaurant Thematic Leader Positions

This morning we are putting some capital to work, scaling into and improving the respective cost basis for Alibaba (BABA) and Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG), the Rise of the New Middle-Class and Guilty Pleasure Thematic Leader holdings.

Earlier this week, the administration inked a trade deal between the US-Mexico-Canada that has some incremental benefits, not yuuuuuuuge ones. But in the administration’s view, a win is a win and with that odds are the Trump administration will focus on making some progress with China trade talks. Per the recent Business Roundtable survey findings

As that happens we should see some of that overhang on BABA shares begin to fade, allowing the factors behind our original thesis to shine through. Before too long, we’ll be on the cusp of the upcoming Chinese New Year, the largest gift-giving holiday in the country, and as know from our own holiday shopping here in the US, consumer spending picks up ahead of the actual holiday.

We’re also seeing Wall Street turn more bullish on BABA shares – yesterday, they received a price target upgrade to $247 from $241 at Goldman Sachs that in its view reflects Alibaba’s expanding total addressable market with continued growth in its cloud business. We view this as more people coming around to our way of thinking on Alibaba’s business model, which closely resembles that of Amazon (AMZN) from several years ago. In short, the accelerating adoption of Alibaba’s digital platform along with the same for its cloud, streaming and mobile payment services should expand margins at the core shopping business and propel its other businesses into the black. Again, just like we’ve seen at Amazon and that has propelled the shares meaningfully higher.

Could we be early with BABA? Yes, but better to be early and patient than late is my thinking.

  • We will use the pullback in Alibaba (BABA) shares to improve our cost basis in this Rise of the New Middle-class position. Our price target on Alibaba shares remains $230.

 

Turning to Del Frisco’s, we have fresh signs that beef prices will trend lower over the next few years as beef production begins to climb. In the recently released Baseline Update for U.S. Agricultural Markets, projections through 2023, the Food and Agricultural Policy Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri estimated the average price of a 600-to 650-pound feeder steer (basis Oklahoma City) at $158.51 per hundredweight (cwt) this year, and then declining to as low as $141.06 in 2020.

As a reminder, beef prices are the biggest impact on the company’s margin profile, and falling beef prices bode extremely well for better profits ahead. Even if we see a fickle consumer emerge, which is possible, but in my view has a low probability of happening given the increase in Consumer Confidence levels, especially for the expectation component, those falling beef prices should cushion the blow.

  • We are adding to our position in Guilty Pleasure company Del Frisco’s (DFRG), which at current levels will improve our cost basis. Our price target remains $14.

 

The NRF introduces its 2018 Holiday Shopping Forecast

Yesterday, the National Retail Federation published its 2018 holiday retail sales forecast, which covers the November and December time frame and excludes automobiles, gasoline, and restaurants sales. On that basis, the NRF expects an increase between 4.3%-$4.8% over 2017 for a total of $717.45- $720.89 billion. I’d note that while the NRF tried to put a sunny outlook on that forecast by saying it compares to “an average annual increase of 3.9% over the past five years” what it did not say is its 2018 forecast calls for slower growth compared to last year’s holiday shopping increase of 5.3%.

That could be some conservatism on their part or it could reflect their concerns over gas prices and other aspects of inflation as well as higher interest costs vs. a year ago that could sap consumer buying power this holiday season. Last October the NRF expected 2017 holiday sales to grow 3.6%-4.0% year over year, well short of the 5.3% gain that was recorded so it is possible they are once again underestimating the extent to which consumers will open their wallets this holiday season. And if you’re thinking about the chart on Consumer Confidence above and what I said in regard to our adding more DFRG shares, so am I.

While I am bullish, we can’t rule out there are consumer-facing headwinds on the rise, and that is likely to accelerate the shift to digital shopping this holiday season, especially as more retailers prime the digital sales pump. As Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist, Lenore Hawkins, is fond of saying – Amazon is the deflationary Death Star, which to me supports the notion that consumers, especially those caught in our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme, will use digital shopping to offset any pinch they are feeling at the gas pump. It also means saving some dollars by not going to the mall – a double benefit if you ask me, and that’s before we even get to the time spent at the mall.

On its own Amazon would be a natural beneficiary of the seasonal pick up in shopping, but as I’ve shared before it has been not so quietly growing its private label businesses and staking out its place in the fashion and apparel industry. These moves as well as Amazon’s ability to competitively price product, plus the myriad way it makes money off its listed products and the companies behind them, mean we are entering into what should be a very profitable time of year for Amazon and its shareholders.

  • As more holiday shopping forecasts emerge, and we progress through the upcoming earnings season I plan on revisiting our current $2,250 price target for Amazon (AMZN) shares. More details on the pending acquisition of PillPack are also a catalyst for us, as well as Wall Street, to boost that target.

I’ve long said that United Parcel Service (UPS) shares are a natural beneficiary of the shift to digital shopping. With a seasonal pickup once again expected that has more companies offering digital shopping and more consumers shopping that way, odds are package volumes will once again outpace overall holiday shopping growth year over year. From a financial perspective, that means a disproportionate share of revenue and earnings are to be had at UPS, and from an investor’s perspective, that means multiple expansion is likely to be had.

  • As we head into the holiday shopping season, our price target on UPS shares remains $130.

 

Coming up – Costco earnings and the September Employment Report

After tonight’s market close, Middle-class Squeeze company Costco Wholesale (COST) will issue its latest quarterly results. Given the monthly reports that it issues, which has seen clear consumer wallet share gains in recent months and confirmed the brisk pace of new warehouse openings, we should see results tonight. As you are probably thinking, and correctly so, we are entering one of the strongest periods of the year for Costco, and that means watching not only its outlook, relative to the holiday shopping forecast we discussed above, but its membership comments and new warehouse location plans ahead of Black Friday. Two other factors to watch will be its comments on beef prices – the company is one of the largest sellers of beef in the world – and where it is seeing inflation forces at work.

In terms of consensus expectations for the quarter to be reported, Wall Street sees Costco serving up EPS of $2.36, up more than 13% year over year, on revenue of $44.27 billion, up 4.7% from the year ago quarter.

  • We continue to see Costco Wholesale (COST) a prime beneficiary of the Middle-class Squeeze. Our price target on the shares remains $250.

 

Tomorrow’s September Employment Report will cap the data filled week off. Following the blowout September ADP Employment Report, expectations for tomorrow’s report have inched up. While the number of jobs created is something to watch, the two key factors that I’ll be watching will be the payroll to population figure and wage data. The former will clue us into if we are seeing a greater portion of the US population working, while any meaningful movement in the latter will be fuel for inflation hawks. If the report’s figures for job creation and wage gains come in hotter than expected, we very well could see good news be viewed as concerning as investors connect the dots that call for potentially greater rate hike action by the Fed.

Let’s see what the report brings, and Lenore will no doubt touch on it as part of her next missive.

 

A Middle-class Squeeze recipe: Flat real wage growth with prices poised to move higher

A Middle-class Squeeze recipe: Flat real wage growth with prices poised to move higher

We’ve been witnessing inflationary pressures in the monthly economic data over the last several months. Some of this has been higher raw material due in part to trade tariffs and other input costs, such as climbing freight costs, as well as the impact of increased minimum wages in certain states. Habit Restaurant (HABT) noticeably called out the impact of wage gains as one of the primary drivers in its recent menu price increase.

This June 2018 earnings season, we’ve heard from a growing number of companies – from materials and food to semiconductor and restaurants –  that contending with inflationary pressures are looking to pass it through to consumers in the form of higher prices as best they can. The thing is, wage growth has been elusive for the vast majority of workers, especially on an inflation-adjusted basis. Keep in mind that is before we factor in the inflationary effect to be had if these escalating rounds of trade tariffs are in effect longer than expected.

As these price increases take hold and interest rates creep higher, it means consumer spending dollars will not stretch as far as they did previously.  Not good for consumers and not good for the economy but it offers support for the Fed to boost rates in the coming quarters and keeps our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme in vogue.

 

U.S. average hourly earnings adjusted for inflation fell 0.2 percent in July from a year earlier, data released on Friday showed, notching the lowest reading since 2012. While inflation isn’t high in historical terms, after years of being too low following the 2007-2009 recession, its recent gains are taking a bigger bite out of U.S. paychecks.

“Inflation has been climbing and wage growth, meanwhile, has been flat as a pancake,” said Laura Rosner, senior economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives LLC in New York. “In a very tight labor market you would expect that workers would negotiate their wages to at least keep up with the cost of living, and the picture tells you that they’re not.”

Source: American Workers Just Got a Pay Cut in Economy Trump Calls Great – Bloomberg

Silver Screen

Coming soon to theaters: higher prices. Movie theater operator Cinemark Holdings Inc. plans to pass costs along to customers, partly due to seating upgrades.

“Our average ticket price also increased 3.7 percent to $8.08, largely as a result of inflation, incremental pricing opportunities associated with recliner conversions, and favorable adult-versus-child ticket type mix,” said Chief Financial Officer Sean Gamble. “As we’ve continued to roll out recliners, our general tactic has been to go forward with limited pricing upfront and then when we see the demand opportunity increase there, and I’d say there’s still — we still believe there is further opportunity as we look to the back half of this year and forward in that regard.”

To be fair, movie ticket prices have been marching steadily higher in recent years. But theaters aren’t the only ones planning to pass on costs.

Sugar Boost

The maker of Twinkies and Ding Dongs wants to charge more for its sugary snacks.

“We will implement a retail price increase and incremental retailer programs to help offset the inflationary headwinds we and others in the industry are experiencing,” Hostess Brands Inc. Chief Executive Officer Andrew Callahan said on a call, explaining that the company is researching how to do so without choking off growth. The majority of the change will come in 2019, he said.

Bubble Wrap

Sealed Air Corp., the maker of Bubble Wrap and other packaging materials, is trying “to do everything we can operationally to keep our freight costs low,” Chief Financial Officer William Stiehl said in apresentation. “Where I’ve been very happy with the company’s success is our ability to pass along price increases to our customers for our relevant input cost.”

Steel Prices

Tariffs are hitting home at Otter Tail Corp.’s metal fabrication unit BTD, but leadership doesn’t sound especially concerned. Thank pricing power.

“We do not anticipate higher steel prices from tariffs having a significant impact on BTD’s margins as steel costs are largely passed through to customers,” Chief Executive Officer Charles MacFarlane said on a call. “BTD is working to enhance productivity in a period of increased volume and tight labor markets.”

Tariff Tag

The trade impact pass-through is equally real at semiconductor device maker Diodes Inc.

“Products that we import into the U.S. from China, all of those products are going to be ultimately affected by the tariffs,” Chief Financial Officer Richard White said on a call. Between U.S. levies that began July 6 and additional rounds planned to follow, “it’s about $3.6 million per quarter, but we plan to pass these tariff charges on to our customers.”

Home Costs

Housing developer LGI Homes Inc. is “consistently” seeing sales price increases as costs bump higher — a sign that pricing power exists even in big-ticket markets like housing.

“We’re able to and need to raise our prices to keep our gross margins consistent,” Chairman Eric Lipar said on a call. “In the market that we’re in, which I’d characterize as a good, solid, strong demand market with a tight supply of houses and the labor challenges, the material challenges that we all face, we see at least for the next couple quarters, that trend continuing. Prices are going to have to increase on a same-store basis if you will in order to offset increased costs.”

“We’re dealing with a higher monthly payment for the buyer now because of the rising interest rates from nine months ago. Demand seems to be there,” he said, adding that the company may need to examine ways to address the situation. “Rather than reducing the price, we may have to look at smaller square footages. The buyer may have to choose.”

People Problems

Not everyone is finding opportunities to pass along costs: Civitas Solutions Inc., a health and human services provider that caters to those with disabilities and youth with behavioral or medical challenges, is seeing slimmer margins.

“The number of people that are exiting the company are still a concern to us and I think it’s driven largely by the full, robust economy,” Chairman Bruce Nardella said on a call, citing workers seeing opportunities to leave to get higher wages. “Over the last two years, our margins have eroded because of that labor pressure.”

Pizza Pain

As if a leadership feud and sales slump weren’t problematic enough, pizza chain Papa John’s International Inc. also has to deal with wage pressures and rising costs. It’s responding by attempting to eke out efficiency gains, rather than by raising prices, to defend its margins.

“We have employed third party efficiency experts to review the potential for improvements within our restaurants,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Ritchie said on a call. “They are also conducting time and motion studies. Their work will directly supplement the work we are doing within our restaurant design of the future.”

Addressing Pressures

As some companies maintain profits by pushing costs to customers, Flowers Foods Inc., the maker of Tastykake pastries and Mi Casa tortillas, is finding work-arounds. It increased prices in the first quarter to help offset input inflation, but has also eaten some of the cost.

“Our margins were impacted by inflationary pressures from higher transportation cost, a tight labor market, and increasingly volatile commodity markets,” Chief Executive Officer Allen Shiver said on a call. “To address these inflationary pressures, we are aggressively working to capture greater efficiencies and cost reductions.”

 

Source: Inflation Is Coming to Theater Near You as U.S. Companies Flex Pricing Power – Bloomberg

Uncertainty and volatility to remain in place as we enter 2Q 2018

Uncertainty and volatility to remain in place as we enter 2Q 2018

1Q 2018 – A Return of Volatility and Uncertainty

Last week was not only a shortened week owing to the Good Friday market holiday, but it also brought a close to what was a tumultuous first quarter of 2018. The stock market surged higher in January, hit some rocky roads in February than got even more volatile in March. All told, the S&P 500 ends the first three months of 2018 in a very different place than many expected it would in mid-January. While the four major domestic stock market indices finished March in the black, the only one to finish 1Q 2018 in the black was the Nasdaq Composite Index. Even that, however, was well off its January high. What we saw was a very different market environment than the one we’ve seen between November 2017 and the end of January 2018.

As we begin April, we have China responding to the Trump Administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs with their own on a variety of U.S. goods and President Trump suggested he was ruling out a deal with Democrats on DACA. This likely means the uncertainty and volatility in the stock market over the last several weeks will be with us as we get ready for 1Q 2018 earnings season.

In my view, this should serve as a reminder that “crock pot cooking” does not work when applied to investing — rather than just fix and forget it, there’s a need to be active investors. Not traders, but rather investors that are assessing and re-assessing data much the way we do week in, week out.

Of course, our view is thematic data points, as well as economic ones, offer a better perspective for investors. In last week’s Cocktail Investing Podcast, Lenore Hawkins, Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist, and I explain how the combination of thematic investing and global macro analysis are the chocolate and peanut butter of investing. Coming out of the holiday weekend, I am seeing several confirming data points for our Safety & Security investing theme in the form of the data breach that hit Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. According to reports, Russian hackers obtained “a cache of five million stolen card numbers.” This comes just a few days after Under Armour (UAA)  disclosed that an unauthorized party acquired data associated with 150 million MyFitnessPal user accounts.

During the quarter, we selectively added shares of Rockwell Collins (ROK) and Paccar (PCAR) to the Tematica Investing Select List and recently pruned Universal Display (OLED) and Facebook (FB) shares. The former two were selected given prospects for capital spending and productivity improvement in the country’s aging plants, while Paccar is poised to benefit from the current truck shortage as well as the increasing shift toward digital commerce that is part of our Connected Society investing theme.

With Universal Display, it’s a question of expectations catching up with the current bout of digestion for organic light emitting diode display capacity. We’ll look to revisit these shares as we exit 2Q 2018 looking to buy them if not at better prices, at a better risk-to-reward tradeoff. With Facebook, while we see it benefitting from the shift to digital advertising the current privacy and user data issues are a headwind for the shares that could lead advertisers to head elsewhere. Much like OLED shares, we’ll look to revisit FB shares when the current dust-up settles and we understand how Facebook’s solution(s) change its business model. In the near-term, the verbal CEO sparring between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s (AAPL) Tim Cook over privacy, trust and business models should prove to be insightful as well as entertaining.

 

The Changing Stock Market Narrative

The narrative that has been powering the market saw a profound shift a third of the way through the quarter to one of mixed economic data, uncertainty over monetary and trade policies emanating from Washington that could disrupt the economy, and now short-lived concerns over inflation. Recently added to that list are user data and privacy concerns that have taken some wind out of the sales of FAANG stocks. This is very different than the prior narrative that hinged on the benefits to be had with tax reform.

 

 

Perhaps the best visual is found in the changes to the Atlanta Fed GDP Now forecast (see above). The forecast sat at more than 5% in January before a number of downward revisions as a growing portion of the quarter’s economic data failed to live up to expectations. And as we can see in the chart, as the economic data rolled in during late February and March, the Atlanta Fed steadily ticked its forecast lower, where it landed at 2.4% as of March 29. To be fair, we will receive March economic data that could prop up that forecast or weigh on it further. We’ll be scrutinizing that data this week, which includes the March readings for the ISM Manufacturing and Services indices, auto & truck sales and the closely watched monthly Employment Report. We’ll also get the last of the February numbers, namely the Construction and Factory Order reports.

As we digest the ISM reports, we’ll be watching the new orders line items as well as prices paid to keep tabs on the speed of the economy entering the second quarter in addition to potential inflation worries. In terms of potential inflation, we, along with the investing herd, will be closely scrutinizing the wage data in the March Employment Report. We will be sure to dig one layer deeper, denoting the difference between supervisory and non-supervisory wages. As you’ll recall, those that didn’t do that failed to realize the would-be worry found in the January Employment Report was rather misleading.

In addition to those items, we’ll also be looking at key data items for several Tematica Investing Select List positions. For example,  the March heavy-duty truck order figures that should validate our thesis on Paccar (PCAR) shares, while Costco Wholesale’s (COST) March same-store sales figures should show continued wallet share gains for Cash-strapped Consumer, and the monthly gaming data from Nevada and Macau will clue us in to how that aspect of our Guilty Pleasure investing theme did in February and March.

 

Gearing Up for 1Q 2018 Earnings Season

Last Friday we officially closed the books on 1Q 2018, and that means before too long we’ll soon be staring down the gauntlet of first-quarter earnings season. With that in mind, let’s get a status check as to where the market is trading. Current expectations for the S&P 500 call for 2018 EPS to grow 18.5% year over year to $157.70. Helping fuel this forecast is the expected benefit of tax reform, which is leading to EPS forecasts for a rise of more than 18% year over year in the first half of 2018 and nearly 21% in the back half of the year. To put some perspective around that, annual EPS growth has averaged 7.6% over the 2002-2017 period. As we parse the data, we’d point out that on a per-share basis, estimated earnings for the first quarter have risen by 5.3% since Dec. 31; historically, analysts have reduced those expectations during the first few months of the year.

 

 

What do we think?

While we remain bullish on the potential investments and incremental cash in consumer pockets because of tax reform, we have to point out the risk that tax reform-infused GDP expectations — and therefore EPS expectations — could be a tad lofty. We’ve already seen a growing number of companies use the incremental cash flow to scale up buyback programs and in some cases dividends. Also, as we’ve seen in the past, consumers, especially those wallowing in debt, may opt to lighten the debt load. Lenore made this point last week when she appeared on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight.

 

 

Again, this is a possibility and one that we’ll be monitoring as we get more data in the coming weeks and months as we look to position the Tematica Investing Select List for what’s to come in 2018 and beyond. Combined with the rising concern of tariffs and trade that could disrupt supply and goose inflation in the short to medium term, it’s going to be even more of a challenge to parse company guidance to be had in the coming weeks that could be less than clear. I’ll be sure to break out my extra decoder ring as I get my seatbelt secured for what is looking to be a bumpy set of weeks.

As I noted above, we were prudently choosey with the Tematica Investing Select List in 1Q 2018, and while we will continue to be so as share prices come in, I’ll look to take advantage of the improving risk-to-reward profiles to be had.

 

Consumer debt above Great Recession levels is a headwind to spending and the economy

Consumer debt above Great Recession levels is a headwind to spending and the economy

We’ve seen the reports of rising consumer debt, and a new one confirms one aspect of our Cash-strapped Consumer investing theme —  “wage growth has been stagnant for five years for a large segment of the working populace — and that using cards is the result of the simple fact that people have to use them to cover their basic living expenses.“ 

Sums it up in a nutshell, don’t you think?

The downside of higher debt levels, especially in a rising rate environment, is more income goes to servicing that debt shrinking disposable income in the process. Less disposable income means either more borrowing or less spending – one is a band-aid that will only drive interest payments higher later, while the other is a headwind to consumer spending.

No matter how you slice it, the eventual end result is the same. We at Tematica see this as positive for those companies that embrace our Cash-strapped Consumer and Cashless Consumption themes even though this is a headwind to domestic economic growth.

The New York Fed’s latest report on household debt tells a very sharp story about the U.S. consumer’s relationship with debt.

Consumers in the U.S. have racked up more debt than ever — $12.73 trillion as of the end of Q1 2017, nudging past the $12.68 trillion back in Q3 2008.

Credit card debt accounts for roughly one trillion of that number.“Where did the growth [in credit card debt] come from?” Schwartz asked rhetorically.  “Is it because card companies reached further down-market to pull more near- and sub-prime credit users into the market?

Or are we seeing more growth from the more affluent consumers who have higher [credit] scores and the ability to spend more?”

Answering that question, he noted, is quite complicated ten years after the recession,  because the answer is actually both — and it depends on what tranches of borrowers one looks at. The reality he said, is that wage growth has been stagnant for five years for a large segment of the working populace — and that using cards is the result of the simple fact that people have to use them to cover their basic living expenses.“

People have been using credit just to live their lives,” Schwartz said. “They aren’t putting $10,000 on their cards to take a fancy vacation — people have living expenses, and that is what is getting put on cards. I think we have seen a lot of that happen.”

Source: Post Great Recession, Consumer Debt Is Evolving | PYMNTS.com

Home No So Sweet Home

Home No So Sweet Home

We have written extensively on the pages about weak household spending. As we’ve mentioned before, the only way to increase spending is either through higher incomes or through more borrowing. The borrowing looks to have decidedly peaked.

 

Wages growth has been weak as well, although yesterday’s quarterly report on median weekly real earnings showed some signs of improving.

One of the aspects affecting how and where consumers spend is likely related to what we see happening with home ownership versus renting. Home ownership levels are today at levels not seen in many decades.

Instead, consumers are opting to rent.

Over the past 10+ years we’ve seen the number of households that are homeowners decline, while the number of households renting has grown.

It isn’t just the Millenials either who are preferring to rent versus own.

 

With this rather profound increase in households opting to rent versus own, rising rental rates will have a bigger impact on aggregate spending abilities.

 

Rental rate increases so far in 2017 are on track to see the biggest gains since 2007, leaving consumers in a tough spot with wages up just 0.8 percent in June while rents are up 3.8 percent on an annualized basis over the past couple of months. Housing costs are having a greater impact on overall inflation than we’ve seen in quite a few years.

 

While rising rental rates may make buying a home look relatively more attractive, home prices have been rising a much faster rate than wages as the inventory of homes on the market has been at exceptionally low levels. If the Fed is successful in raising longer-term interest rates, the increase in mortgage costs will put home ownership further out of reach for some who may be hesitant to take that risk in the first place.

Which brings us to how the various generations choose to spend, with Millennials living up to their reputation by spending a greater portion of their income on restaurants, groceries, technology and clothing.

 

Bottom Line:

Many consumers still have mortgage/home ownership PTSD after the unprecedented pain felt during the financial crisis. The decades of rising rates of homeownership, induced in large part by federal policies and legislation, has mostly been wiped out. This data illustrates how the generations most affected by the financial crisis have shifted to a more asset-light lifestyle. This shift is a tailwind to those companies providing goods and/or services consistent the sharing economy.

 

 

Bearish Thoughts on General Motors Shares

Bearish Thoughts on General Motors Shares

While higher interest rates might be a positive for financials, at the margin, however, it comes at a time when credit card debt levels are approaching 2007 levels according to a recent study from NerdWallet. The bump higher in interest rates also means adjustable rate mortgage costs are likely to tick higher as are auto loan costs, especially for subprime auto loans. Even before the rate increase, data published by S&P Global Ratings shows US subprime auto lenders are losing money on car loans at the highest rate since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis as more borrowers fall behind on payments. If you’re thinking this means more problems for the Cash-strapped Consumer (one of our key investment themes), you are reading our minds.

In 4Q 2016, the rate of car loan delinquencies rose to its highest level since 4Q 2009, according to credit analysis firm TransUnion (TRU). The auto delinquency rate — or the rate of car buyers who were unable make loan payments on time — rose 13.4 percent year over year to 1.44 percent in 4Q 2016 per TransUnion’s latest Industry Insights Report. That compares to 1.59 percent during the last three months of 2009 when the domestic economy was still feeling the hurt from the recession and financial crisis. And then in January, we saw auto sales from General Motors (GM), Ford (F) and Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) fall despite leaning substantially on incentives.

Over the last six months, shares of General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler are up 8 percent, -2.4 percent, and more than 70 percent, respectively. A rebound in European car sales, as well as share gains, help explain the strong rise in FCAU shares, but the latest data shows European auto sales growth cooled in February. In the U.S., according to data from motorintelligence.com, while General Motor sales are up 0.3 percent for the first two months of 2017 versus 2016, Ford sales are down 2.5 percent, Chrysler sales are down 10.7 percent and Fiat sales are down 14.3 percent.

In fact, despite reduced pricing and increasingly generous incentives, car sales overall are down in the first two months of 2017 compared to the same time in 2016.

 

So what’s an investor in these auto shares to do, especially if you added GM or FCAU shares in early 2016? The prudent thing would be to take some profits and use the proceeds to invest in companies that are benefitting from multi-year thematic tailwinds such as Applied Materials (AMAT), Universal Display (OLED) and Dycom Industries (DY) that are a part of our Disruptive Technology and Connected Society investing themes.

Currently, GM shares are trading at 5.8x 2017 earnings, which are forecasted to fall to $6.02 per share from $6.12 per share in 2016. Here’s the thing, the shares peaked at 6.2x 2016 earnings and bottomed out at 4.6x 2016 earnings last year, which tells us there is likely more risk than reward to be had at current levels given the economic and consumer backdrop.  Despite soft economic data that shows enthusiasm and optimism for the economy, the harder data, such as rising consumer debt levels paired with a lack of growth in real average weekly hourly earnings in February amid a slowing economy, suggests we are more likely to see GM’s earnings expectations deteriorate further. And yes, winter storm Stella likely did a number of auto sales in March.

Subscribers to Tematica Pro received a short call on GM shares on March 16, 2017

 

 

Friday’s January Job Report a Blowout, But There’s More You Need to Know

Friday’s January Job Report a Blowout, But There’s More You Need to Know

This morning’s January Employment Report showed the economy added 227K  jobs in January, beating consensus expectations for 170K jobs.  This comes after the surge in January private sector jobs to 246K vs. the expected 165K reported by ADP earlier this week. Great to see some data to back up the uber-optimistic market these days, but there is a bit more to this story.

While the headline number looked great, digging beneath the headline and into the details the report wasn’t as rosy. If we take into account that revisions to the prior two months reduced jobs by 39k, the average is closer to expectations and the 3 month moving average is less impressive.

We also saw a decline in employment in the key working age group of 25-54-year-olds of 305k, which was partially offset by a 195k increase in 55+ employment – more near retirement working and fewer in prime working years isn’t a positive sign. Looking at the bigger picture, job growth averaged 239k in 2014, falling to 213k in 2015 and this report brings the recent 12-month average to 182k. The pace of job growth continues to slow,  total payrolls rose now up 1.6 percent year over year versus 1.9 percent in the first quarter of 2016, which is typical with an economic recovery that is rather long in the tooth.

We also saw an increase in those working part-time because they cannot find full-time work by 232k – we’d obviously prefer to see that decline. Those expecting a Fed rate hike soon should note that this is one of Fed Chair Yellen’s favorite metrics.

 

Along these lines, we saw the underemployment rate (as measured by the U6) rise to a three-month high of 9.4 percent from December’s 9.2 percent.

Along with that increase in part-time workers, we saw the change in weekly hours worked drop to a rate not seen since the recession, which indicates that future strong job growth is less likely.

 

More frustrating is the lack of meaningful wage growth, rising just 0.1 percent month over month and 2.5 percent year over year, the weakest year over year gain since last March. Average weekly earnings saw the weakest gain in six months at 1.9 percent.

 

One of the biggest challenges facing the employment situation is the mismatch between available labor and business needs. Small businesses are finding it increasingly more difficult to find qualified talent for the position they are looking to fill, which clearly negatively impacts their ability to grow – another headwind to the economy. This is also reflected in the record level spread between job openings and hirings we see every month in the JOLTS report. Our next take on that data comes next week with the December report.

 

All this those doesn’t address the much bigger issue the country is facing and this is what investors need to understand far more than the monthly fluctuations.

The growth of an economy is dependent on just two things: the size of the available workforce and productivity levels. For an economy to grow one or ideally both of those need to be rising.

It has become a popular refrain to refer to President Trump as the next Ronald Reagan, implying that his policies will lead to the type of economic boom that the country experience during and after Reagan’s presidency. We’d love nothing more than for the country to see that kind of growth again, but the fundamentals today are very different from those in the 1980s.

When Reagan took office median baby boomers were moving into their prime working age and the percent of women in the workforce was rising significantly.

 

When Reagan took office, less than 50 percent of women were employed. That number peaked in 2000 at 58 percent but has declined to just 54.1 percent in January.

 

The weak employment relative to total population though isn’t all about the baby boomers retiring as the percent of those in the prime working age cohort ages 25 to 54 years rose dramatically from the early 1980s to just over 72 percent to a peak of over 81 percent in 2000. As of January, 78.2 percent are employed, a level we haven’t seen, outside of a recession, since the late 1980s.

You might have heard as well that fertility rates in developed economies have been slowing dramatically. In many European nations the rate has dropped below replacement levels, which means that without immigration, the total population of those countries would be declining. In the U.S. the rate of growth of the working population, either through immigration or native births has been slowing significantly.

 

The potential growth rate of the U.S. economy is materially different today than during Reagan’s era because of significant changes in the dynamics of the labor pool. Today the percent of people choosing to be in the workforce is lower than it has been in decades. Compounding this problem, the growth rate in the working age population has slowed dramatically from where it was in the 1980s.

To increase the potential growth rate for the economy, outside of any handicaps placed on it through legislation, regulation or taxation, the population of those in the workforce needs to increase and/or productivity needs to rise.

When it comes to productivity, it is all about capital investment and for years we’ve seen companies choosing to buy back shares rather than reinvest in their own productive capacity… but that’s a topic for next time!

 

Why so many Americans in the middle class have no savings 

New data from the Federal Reserve points to the fragile state of American households, confirming our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class and Cash-Strapped Consumer investing themes in the process.

Most American households did slightly better economically in 2015 than 2014, according to a recent survey by the Federal Reserve; 69 percent said they were living comfortably or doing OK, up from 65 percent. But 31 percent said they were either struggling to get by or just getting by, a figure that includes millions of middle-class Americans.

The median income in America is somewhere around $50,000. So a middle-class existence was more than two times as great as the median income. And what that tells you is that the face of financial fragility is the face of the college-educated, as well as those without a high school diploma.

Source: Why so many Americans in the middle class have no savings | PBS NewsHour