Weekly Issue: While far from booming, U.S. economy not  as bad as the headlines

Weekly Issue: While far from booming, U.S. economy not as bad as the headlines

Key points inside this issue

  • Thematic confirmation in the July Retail Sales report
  • Getting back to the global economy and that yield curve inversion
  • The week ahead
  • The Thematic Leaders and Select List
  • A painful reminder about dividend cuts

Despite Friday’s rebound, the stock market finished down week over week as it continued to grapple with the one-two punches of the slowing global economy and U.S.- China trade. There was much chatter on the recent yield-curve inversion, but as we look back at the economic data released last week, the U.S. economy continues to be on more solid footing than the Eurozone or China.

That’s not to say the domestic economy is booming. The Cass Freight Index, weekly railcar-traffic and truck-tonnage data and the July U.S. industrial-production report’s manufacturing component leave little question that America’s manufacturing economy is slowing. And as we saw last week, the U.S. consumer buoyed the economy in July with stronger-than-expected retail sales.


Thematic confirmation in the July Retail Sales report 

Last week’s July Retail Sales Report confirmed one of the key aspects of our Digital Lifestyle investment theme – the accelerating shift toward digital shopping that continues to vex brick and mortar retailers, particularly department stores. Granted, the year over year increase in non- store retail sales of 16.0%, which was several magnitudes greater than overall July Retail Sales that rose 3.4% year over year and bested sequential expectations, was aided by Thematic King Amazon’s (AMZN) 2019 Prime Day event but one month does not make a quarter. For the three months ending July, non-store retail sales rose 14.2% year over year, easily outstripping the 3.2% year over year comparison for overall retail sales. 

Clearly, the shift to digital shopping is not only underfoot, or more properly stated on a variety of keyboards, it is accelerating, and the victims continue to be department stores, electronics and appliance stores, sporting goods and bookstores, and to a lesser extent clothing and furniture. We’re seeing this play out in the results from Macy’s (M) as well as J.C. Penney (JCP), which is so strategically lost it is venturing into the used clothing market through a partnership with online consignment company thredUP. With its July quarter sales down 9% year over year, J.C. Penney is going for the “Hail Mary” pass with this move, but it’s only going to bring cheaper product in to compete with its already low-priced offering. I can almost understand the J.C. Penney is looking to double-down on our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme, but it’s facing stiff competition from companies like Poshmark that are doing that as well as riding our Digital Lifestyle theme. 

Each of those challenged categories I mentioned above are also areas that Amazon continues to target with offerings from both third-party sellers as well as its growing private label line of products. I’ve often said Amazon shares are ones to hold, not trade, and we continue to feel that way as we approach the seasonally strongest time of the year for its business.


Getting back to the global economy and that yield curve inversion

For now, the U.S. economy remains the best house on the economic block — but it’s showing signs of wear. Of course, the fact the yield curve inverted briefly last week rang the “Recession Warning Bell.” But let’s remember that there’s historically been a lag of up to almost two years following that warning. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has already adopted a more dovish tone and will likely stand ready to add more stimulus to the economy if need be. All eyes will now on the Fed’s mid-September monetary-policy meeting.

Meanwhile, as economic-growth worries increased in the Eurozone and China last week, we heard about a big bazooka of stimulative measures that the European Central Bank is considering for its Sept. 12 policy meeting. China will also reportedly soon roll out a plan to boost disposable income over the coming quarters to spur its domestic consumption.

I would suggest you tune in later this week for what Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins has to say on this.

We’ll continue to monitor how global central bankers try to steer their respective economies in the coming weeks. While we suspect that Wall Street will likely cheer any and all dovish moves, the question remains how stimulative those policies will really be if the U.S.-China trade war continues.

U.S.-Chinese trade talks are set to resume in September, which tells us that we might get a lull in Wall Street’s recent volatility. But we should by no means think that “Elvis has left the building,” and we could very well see another round of turbulence in the coming weeks.


The Week Ahead

With two weeks to go until the Labor Day holiday weekend, we’re officially in the dog days of summer. These weeks historically see lower-than-usual trading volume, as investors and traders look to squeeze in that last bit of fun in the sun. Following last week’s full plate of economic data, this week will have a far smaller helping coming at us. Upcoming reports include July new- and existing-home sales, as well as the Index of Leading Economic Indicators.

Investors will also focus on what the latest flash PMI data from IHS Markit has to say about the global economy when that report lands on Aug. 22. I’ll be looking to see whether the U.S. economy continues to outperform Japan, China and the Eurozone following data out last week that suggested the German and Chinese economies continue to slow.

Reading those reports and the upcoming Federal Open Market Committee meeting minutes should set the stage for what we’re likely to hear when the FOMC next meets on Sept. 18. We’ll also have more data coming our way over the weeks leading up to the FOMC session, and we’re apt to get a few surprises along the way. While there’s no Fed interest-rate meeting scheduled for August, the Kansas City Fed will hold its widely watched annual Jackson Hole symposium Aug. 22-24 in Wyoming. The central bank doesn’t usually discuss monetary-policy plans at this event, but we aren’t exactly in normal times these days.

On the earnings calendar this week, the focus will continue to be on retail. If we were reminded of one thing last week in retail land, it’s that not all companies are responding the same way to retailing’s changing landscape. Just look at what we heard last week from Walmart (WMT), Macy’s (M) and JCPenney (JCP). Other key retail reports to watch this week include Home Depot (HD), Kohl’s (KSS), Lowe’s (LOW), Target (TGT), Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS), and Foot Locker (FL). I’ll be looking for the degree to which they’re embracing digital shopping, as well as what they have to say about tariff implications and their expectations for 2019’s remainder.

We’ll also hear from Salesforce (CRM) and Toll Brothers (TOL), which should shed some light on the housing market and IT spending associated with our Disruptive Innovators and Digital Infrastructure investing themes.


The Thematic Leaders and Select List

As I noted above, last week was another choppy one for the stock market and those swings stopped out of Thematic Digital Infrastructure Leader Dycom Industries (DY) as well as Cleaner Living company International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) shares. Given that we were stopped out, it means we took some losses in those two positions, but as I look at the live ones across the Thematic Leaders and the Select List I see an impressive array of returns with our Amazon, Costco Wholesale (COST), Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), McCormick & Co. (MKC), Walt Disney (DIS), Universal Display (OLED) and USA Technologies (USAT) shares. 

Wide swings in the market can present both challenging times as well as opportunities provided, we get some degree of clarity. As I touched on above, the first few weeks of September could be when we see that clarity emerge. Until then, we’ll continue to look for thematically well positioned companies at favorable risk to reward entry points. 


A painful reminder about dividend cuts

Last week I mentioned that the following – I’m focusing more on domestic-focused, inelastic business models that tend to spit off cash and drive dividends. In particular, I’m looking at companies with a track record of increasing their dividends every year for at least 10 years. And of course, they have to have vibrant thematic tailwinds at their respective back.

While I was doing just that, shares of famous lawn-mower engine maker Briggs & Stratton Corp. (BGG) — whose shares tumbled 44.5% last Thursday — presented a sharp reminder as to what can happen when a company cuts its dividend. Yes, the shares rebounded late last week along with the market, but they’ve been generally falling for a long time as the company’s dividend looked shakier and shakier.

Investors tend to think of quarterly dividends as payments in perpetuity, but these payouts are actually only declared at a company board’s discretion. When dividends are disrupted, that can lead to significant share-price pain for a stock.

In this case, Briggs & Stratton not only cut its dividend and reported a far-greater-than-expected quarterly loss, but also slashed its outlook for the balance of the year. The company now expects to earn just $0.20-$0.40 per share for the full year, which down significantly from its prior forecast of $1.30.

When matched up against its revised revenue forecast of $1.91 billion to $1.97 billion vs. a prior $2.01 billion, it’s rather evident that BGG’s cost structure has become an issue. So, it’s no little surprise that Briggs & Stratton also announced plans to close a plant that manufactures engines for the walk-behind lawn mowers you commonly find at Home Depot (HD) or Lowe’s (LOW) .

The company called out that product category in particular for weakness, which management attributed to the U.S. housing market’s current tone. I’ve previously talked about how new- and existing-home sales have been rather sluggish despite the recent mortgage-rate drop, with low rates fueling a wave of home refinancings rather than purchases.

But the biggest factor behind Thursday’s steep BGG dive was the fact that management slashed the company’s quarterly dividend by 64% to $0.05 per share from the prior $0.14. That one-two-three punch combination — bad earnings, a bad forecast and a dividend cut — sent Briggs & Stratton’s share price tumbling.

Going into Thursday morning’s earnings report, BGG shares were sporting a 6.8% dividend yield, which is on the lofty side. Investors should have interpreted that as a warning and here’s why – even before Thursday’s selloff, BGG shares had been down some 70% since January 2018, partly because the company missed analysts’ earnings expectations for the prior three quarters. In hindsight, the misses were escalating in percentage terms — a trend that continued with Thursday’s earnings report.

Paired with the dividend cut, there’s little confidence any more in the current management team, which means BGG shares are likely to flounder further due to several unknowns. Some of those unknowns are company specific, like: “Will be the plant closure deliver sufficient savings?” But others are about the U.S. economy’s future vector and velocity, which Thursday’s July industrial-production report shows is continuing to cool.

And while the July U.S. retail-sales report came in better than expected, we already know that consumers aren’t buying lawnmowers. And unfortunately, that’s not likely to change any time soon as we put the summer behind us.

The bottom line — as I’ve discussed before, when a stock’s dividend yield looks too good to be true, odds are it is just that. BGG is just the latest stock to prove that. While its newly revised dividend yield (4.1%) might still look enticing, it’s not one that we should be clamoring for given the lack of thematic tailwinds for its lawnmowing business. But at a minimum, no investor should consider the shares until there is some proof that management’s turnaround plan is on the cusp of delivering. 

Weekly Issue: Trade and geopolitical issues make for a less than sleepy August 2019

Weekly Issue: Trade and geopolitical issues make for a less than sleepy August 2019

Key points inside this issue

  • Trade and geopolitical issues make for a less than sleepy August 2019
  • What to watch this week
  • Earnings this week
  • Economic data this week
  • The Thematic Aristocrats?

Uncertainty continued to grip the stock market last week as the U.S.-Chinese trade dispute once again took center stage. After the return of tariff talk week prior, the battle expanded this week to include a war of words between Washington and Beijing over the Chinese yuan’s devaluation.

The market ultimately shook that off, in part due to the renewed thought that the Federal Reserve could accelerate interest-rate cuts. But then stocks closed lower week over week after President Trump suggested Friday that trade talks with China set for next week might be canceled.

There’s also renewed geopolitical uncertainty — not just Britain’s Brexit process, but also a looming no-confidence vote against Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that’s once again plunging Italy into political turmoil. And as if that wasn’t enough, over the weekend escalating tensions between Chinese authorities and protesters in Hong Kong were added to the mix, making for one big ball of uncertainty even bigger.

Meanwhile, global economic data continue to soften. This gives some credence to the notion that the Fed could become more dovish than Chairman Jerome Powell suggested during his July 31 press conference following the Federal Open Market Committee’s decision to cut rates. While I don’t expect anything near-term, down below we have a calendar date to mark even though I don’t think it will mean much in the way of monetary policy.

We’re seeing confirming signs for the economic data in oil and copper prices, both of which have been mostly declining of late. Not exactly signs of a vibrant and growing global economy.

Odds are that as we head into summer’s final weeks, stocks will be range-bound at best as they trade based on the latest geopolitical headlines. And odds are there won’t’ be any newfound hope to be had on the earnings front. With 90% of S&P 500 stocks already reporting second-quarter results, it looks like we’ll see another year-over-year decline in quarterly average earnings. For the full year 2019 those earnings are only growing at a 2.5% annual rate, but if President Trump goes forth with the latest round of announced tariffs, odds are those expectations could come down in the coming weeks – more on that below.

All in all, barring any meaningful progress on US-China trade, which seems rather unlikely in the near-term, at best the stock market is likely to be rangebound in the coming weeks. Even though much of Wall Street will be “at the beach” the next few weeks, odds are few will be enjoying their time away given the pins and needles discussed above and further below.

What to watch this week

We have three weeks until the Labor Day holiday weekend, which means we’re entering one of the market’s historically slowest times. There’s typically lower volume than usual, as well as low conviction and wishy-washy moves in the market.

Traditionally, a more-sobering look emerges once Wall Street is “back from the beach” following the Labor Day holiday. This tends to bring a sharper picture of the economy. There are also ample investor conferences where companies update their outlooks as we head into the year’s last few months.

But as we saw this past week, geopolitical and trade tensions could make the next few weeks much more volatile than we’ve seen in the past. As we navigate these waters, we’ll continue to assess what this means for earnings — particularly given that analysts don’t expect the S&P 500 companies to see year-over-year earnings-per- share growth again until the fourth quarter. In my view that puts a lot of hope on a seasonally strong quarter that could very well be dashed by President Trump’s potential next round of tariffs. I say this because retailers now face the 10% tariffs set to go into effect on September 1, which will hit apparel and footwear, among other consumer goods.

The risk is we could very well see 2019 turn into a year with little to no EPS growth for the S&P 500, and if factor out the impact of buybacks it likely means operating profit growth had at the S&P 500 is contracting year over year. We’ll know more on that in the coming weeks, but if it turns out to be the case I suspect it will lead many an investor to question the current market multiple of 17.6x let alone those market forecasters, like the ones at Goldman Sachs, that are calling for 3,100 even as their economists cut their GDP expectations.

Earnings this week

This week will have the slowest pace of earnings releases in about a month, with only some 330 companies issuing quarterly results. That’s a sharp drop from roughly 1,200 such reports that we got last week.

Among those firms reporting numbers next week, we’ll see a sector shift toward retail stocks, including Macy’s (M), J.C. Penney (JCP) and Walmart (WMT). Given what I touched on above, I’ll be listening for their comments on the potential tariff impact as well as comments surrounding our Digital Lifestyle and Middle-class Squeeze investing themes, and initial holiday shopping expectations.

This week’s earnings reports also bring the latest from Cisco Systems (CSCO), Nvidia (NVDA), and Deere (DE). Given how much of Deere’s customer base sells commodities like U.S. soybeans (which China has hit with tariffs), we’ll carefully listen to management’s comments on the trade war. There could be some tidbits for our New Global Middle-class theme from Deere as well. With Cisco, we could hear about the demand impact being generated by 5G network buildouts as well as the incremental cyber security needs that will be needed. These make the Cisco earnings conference call one to listen to for our Digital Infrastructure and Safety & Security investing themes.

 

Economic data this week

On the economic front, we’ll get July reports for retail sales, industrial production and housing starts, as well as the August Empire Manufacturing and Philly Fed surveys. Given the importance of the consumer, the July Retail Sales will be one to watch and I for one expect it to be very bullish for our Digital Lifestyle investing theme if and only if because of Amazon’ 2019 Prime Day and all the other retailers that tried to cash in on it. I suspect, however, the report will reveal more gloom for department stores. All in all the week’s economic data points will help solidify the current quarter’s gross domestic product expectations, which are sitting at 1.6%-1.9% between the New York and Atlanta Fed.

Based on what we’ve seen of late from IHS Markit for Japan, China and the Eurozone, that still makes America the best economic house on the block. Granted, the U.S. vector and velocity are still in the down and slowing positions, but we have yet to see formal signs of a contracting domestic economy. As Tematica’s Chief Macro Strategist Lenore Hawkins pointed out in her most recent assessment of things, we’ll need to keep tabs on the dollar for “The deflationary power of a strengthening US dollar strength in the midst of slowing global trade and trade wars just may overpower anything central banks try.”

Odds are that as the latest economic figures hit, especially if they keep the economy’s recent vector and velocity intact, we will see more speculation on what the Fed might do next. While there’s no Fed interest-rate meeting scheduled for August, the Kansas City Fed will hold its widely watched annual Jackson Hole symposium Aug. 22-24 in Wyoming. The central bank doesn’t usually discuss monetary-policy plans at this event, but as noted above, we aren’t exactly in normal times these days.

 

The Thematic Aristocrats?

Given the recent market turbulence as prospects for more of the same in the coming weeks, I’m sitting back and building our shopping list for thematically well-positioned companies. Given the economic data of late and geo-political uncertainties as well as Lenore’s comments on the dollar, I’m focusing more on domestic-focused, inelastic business models that tend to spit off cash and drive dividends. In particular, I’m looking at companies with a track record of increasing their dividends every year for at least 10 years. And of course, they have to have vibrant thematic tailwinds at their respective back.

Perhaps, we can informally call these the “Thematic Aristocrats”?

I’ll have more as I refine that list.

Does Katzenberg’s Quibi and its $100M in ad sales signal a streaming bubble?

Does Katzenberg’s Quibi and its $100M in ad sales signal a streaming bubble?

As we get ready to enter the second half of 2019, we will see several streaming video services launching, including the high profile ones from Disney and Apple, with more to follow in the coming quarters. No surprise as consumers flock to that aspect of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme, preferring to watch what they want, when they want on the device they want.

The question we are thinking through is how long until we see the once quality content filled streaming services become the new cable – filled with subpar programming and in some cases ads?

It seems every week there is a new streaming video service with recent ones including the ability to watch Broadway shows and short-form programming. An example of the latter is Quibi by Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the former Disney Hollywood wonders, and in a world of other streaming services as well as short-form videos from Snap, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the Tematica jury is out on its success.

What’s interesting in the price point at $7.99 for an ad-free subscription, which is less than the $6.99 starting price for Disney+. That same $6.99 starting price was one of the factors that led Comcast to rethink its own streaming service in favor of selling its stake in Hulu to Disney.

The bottom line is we’ve seen these rushes in the past, and invariably there is a shakeout that will washout a number of entrants looking to capitalize on the trend.

Quibi, the short-form video platform founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, hasn’t even launched, but has already booked $100 million in advertising sales, according to a report from The WSJ this morning. The company, which aims to cater to younger viewers with premium content chopped up into “quick bites,” says it has already booked advertisers, including Protector & Gamble, Pepsi Co., Anheuser-Busch InBev, Walmart, Progressive and Google.

It still has around $50 million in unsold ad inventory ahead of launch.

It’s hard to imagine how a service like Quibi will compete in a market dominated by paid streamers like Netflix and free services like YouTube — both preferred by a younger demographic. But Quibi has been raising massive amounts of money to take them on. In May, it was reported that Quibi was going after another billion in funding, on top of the billion it had already raised.

Beyond the industry’s big bet on Katzenberg himself, Quibi has booked big-name talent, including Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, and is filming a show about Snapchat’s founding, which may draw in millennial viewers.

But it sounds like Quibi may also be relying on gimmicks — like Spielberg’s horror series that you can only watch at night (when it’s dark outside). Not to mention the very idea that Quibi thinks it’s invented a new kind of media that falls between today’s short-form and traditional TV-length or movie-length content found elsewhere.

On Quibi, shows are meant to be watched on the go, through segments that are around 7 to 10 minutes long. Some of the content will be bigger, more premium productions, while others will be more akin to what you’d find on cable TV or lower-cost daily news programming.

The service will launch April 6, 2020 with two tiers. A $4.99 per month plan includes a pre-roll ad before each video segment. The ad is 10 seconds if the video is less than 5 minutes, and it’s 15 seconds for any videos between 5 and 10 minutes. Some ads themselves will tell “brand stories” throughout the program breaks.

A $7.99 per month tier offers an ad-free experience.

Source: Jeffrey Katzenberg’s streaming service Quibi books $100M in ad sales ahead of launch | TechCrunch

Warehouse Hiring Surges on Rising E-Commerce Demand

Warehouse Hiring Surges on Rising E-Commerce Demand

We see this every month in the Retail Sales report and almost every week in our everyday lives – consumers continue to flock to digital shopping – and that is spurring demand for distribution centers and warehouses as well as workers to fill them. As Amazon looks to expand not only the reach of its private label brands but move into the online pharmacy market courtesy of its PillPack acquisition, the odds are high that Walmart, Target and other companies will look to combat Amazon by at a minimum matching its buy/ship service. And that’s even before Amazon announced it will debut one-day shipping with Prime. More packages, more distribution centers, more jobs. A plain and simple result of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Warehouse operators stepped up hiring in April as e-commerce demand drove up employment in distribution centers even as job growth across the rest of the freight-transportation sector slowed.

Warehousing and storage companies added 5,400 jobs last month, according to preliminary figures the Labor Department reported Friday, the fourth straight month of growth in a sector that includes fulfillment centers that process and ship online orders. The sector added nearly 70,000 jobs over the past 12 months.

The gains in warehousing and delivery come as rapid e-commerce growth pushes companies to open more fulfillment centers near major population centers to speed up delivery to customers. U.S. online sales jumped 14.2% in 2018, generating an estimated $513.6 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Brian Devine, senior vice president of logistics-staffing firm ProLogistix, said he is seeing “huge growth” for logistics and e-commerce workers in key hubs like Southern California’s Inland Empire; areas of New Jersey near New York City; Atlanta; Indianapolis; and Memphis, Tenn.

“There are not enough workers in those markets,” Mr. Devine said. “The unemployment rate is so low that it’s difficult for us to fill those positions.” He said the average wage for ProLogistix workers jumped 6.8% in April from the same month a year ago, to $13.81 an hour.

Source: Warehouse Hiring Surges on Rising E-Commerce Demand – WSJ

The U.S. government is knocking for student loan

The U.S. government is knocking for student loan

While there are talks of student loan forgiveness on the 2020 campaign trail, the Treasury Depart is stepping up its game to collect on delinquent student loans. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) points to disposable income once again coming under pressure during the first quarter of 2018. Paired with rising gas prices and renewed uncertainty over the global economy as well as the current state of US-China trade, we see the average consumer remaining in a tight spot.

It comes as no surprise to us that loan inquiries at consumer finance platform company LendingClub jumped significantly in the March 2019 quarter as consumers look to shore up their personal finance and manage existing debt levels. Disposable dollars for debt servicing take a bite out of consumer spending, which means our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme remains an economic headwind. It does, however, bode very well for companies like Costco Wholesale, BJ’s, Walmart and Amazon that help consumers stretch their spending dollars.

Your rich Uncle Sam is calling in his chips.The U.S. government stepped up collections on delinquent student debt to $2.9 billion last year — or an average of $1,000 from 2.9 million former students and their cosigners, according to the Treasury Department. And the trend continues. In the first six months of fiscal 2019, which started Oct. 1, collections totaled $3.3 billion.

Source: U.S. Stepping Up Enforcement on Delinquent Student Loans – Bloomberg

Walmart teams with Google for grocery voice play

Walmart teams with Google for grocery voice play

Walmart is teaming with Alphabet Inc. to take the grocery fight via voice ordering to Amazon and its Whole Foods, Alexa combination.

In a blog post, Walmart shared that starting this month, customers would be able to grocery shop through the Google Assistant by saying, “Hey, Google, talk to Walmart.” This seems like a positive for Google, especially if they are able to share in the data collection with Walmart, while for Walmart it seems like the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s also a way to add the functionality associated with our Disruptive Innovators investing theme without having to develop a solution in house.

Kudos to Walmart for continuing to innovate and partner for the new digital world we live in. And to be clear, while Amazon and Walmart compete on several levels, Walmart lacks the profit and cash flow powerhouse that is Amazon Web Services.

According to data from Loup Ventures and published by Voicebot.ai, Amazon’s Alexa had 52% global market share in 2018 vs. 32% for Google Home/Assistant. For now, that would appear to give Amazon the edge, but the reality is it comes down to the percentage of people using these devices to order groceries.

Here’s the thing, just because Walmart makes it available, it doesn’t mean consumers will be using Google Assistant to order groceries. Even I still like to pick out fresh produce and select my cuts of meat. But for generic and boxed items ranging from detergent to garbage bags, this could give not only Amazon a run for its money but also Costco Wholesale and Target.

Now to see how usage develops and what if any other other potential partnerships follow.

Retailers are turning to voice assistants to make it easier for customers to shop for groceries amid strong competition. Walmart, in one case, has rolled out an offering called Walmart Voice Order by working with partners such as Google.

The feature allows consumers to use voice commands to shop for groceries. Beginning in April, shoppers will be able to say “Google, talk to Walmart” and Google Assistant will add products directly to their Walmart grocery carts. Shoppers can also manage their shopping carts on the go, as the technology is available on a host of devices, such as Android phones.

The technology uses the shopper’s past purchases to create a more personalized experience. If a shopper instructs Google Assistant to add milk to the shopping cart, for example, the feature will add the size, brand and type of milk he or she regularly chooses.

In a blog post, Walmart Senior Vice President of Digital Operations Tom Ward noted, “We know when using voice technology, customers like to add items to their cart one at a time over a few days – not complete their shopping for the week all at once. So, this capability aligns with the way customers shop.” While Walmart is rolling out the function with Google, Ward hinted that other voice assistant options will be available in the future. “We’re kicking off the work with Google, adding others to the mix as time goes on,” he noted, adding that the service would be available to more customers in the weeks to come.

Source: Voice Shopping: Walmart’s Newest Grocery Play | PYMNTS.com

Walmart entering the low-end tablet market as Google looks to exit

Walmart entering the low-end tablet market as Google looks to exit

Walmart is joining the ranks of the tablet market, which comes at a time when some device owners are balking at the increasing price points for smartphones. This tablet, which will have a price point that is very friendly with cash strapped consumers associated with our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme, leverages Chinese manufacturing and the Android operating system. Odds are this means the key differentiator in a crowded Android playing field for Walmart’s tablet will be the price. This helps explain why Google is pulling engineers off its tablet team, but with Apple looking to tie its streaming video service to its tablets and other iOS devices, one has to wonder if those rumors of a Walmart streaming video service that would tap our Digital Lifestyle theme have any truth to them?

Walmart Inc. is moving into iPad territory.

The world’s largest retailer plans to introduce an inexpensive, kid-friendly tablet computer under its ONN store brand, part of a broader redesign of its electronics department. The device will be made by a Chinese supplier and run on Google’s Android operating system, according to photos found on a database of wireless product applications filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

After spending last year overhauling its apparel offering, Walmart will make electronics and home goods a focus this year, according to presentations given by senior management at a recent meeting of the company’s suppliers. Rival Target Corp. last year introduced its first consumer electronics store brand, called Heyday, with products including headphones and smartphone cases. The demise of technology-focused retailers like Circuit City has opened up opportunities for other chains to grab gadget sales.

Source: Walmart (WMT) Readies Low-Priced Rival to Apple (AAPL) iPad – Bloomberg

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Key point inside this issue

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

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

 

Last week’s data confirms the US economy is slowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What to Watch This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tematica Investing

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

 

Adding significantly to our position in Thematic Leader Dycom Industries

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

Key point inside this issue

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

 

Last week’s data confirms the US economy is slowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What to Watch This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tematica Investing

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

 

Adding significantly to our position in Thematic Leader Dycom Industries

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Tematica Options+

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Weekly Issue: Del Frisco’s Sends Strong Signals of Potential Take Over Bid

Weekly Issue: Del Frisco’s Sends Strong Signals of Potential Take Over Bid

Key points inside this issue

  • The stock market continues to move higher even as global growth slows and S&P 500 earnings prospects for the current quarter slump further.
  • Our long-term price target on Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) shares remains $2,250, which offers more than 35% upside following its December quarter earnings report.
  • As Living the Life Thematic Leader Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) gets serious with its strategic alternatives, our price target remains $14.
  • We are issuing a Buy on and adding the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) September 20, 2019, 10.00 calls (DFRG 190920C00010000) that closed last night at 0.60 with a stop loss at 0.30.
  • On the housekeeping front, we were stopped out of the Nokia (NOK) July 2019 7.00 (NOK190719C00007000) calls last Friday (Feb. 1).

 

Stocks rebounded in a pronounced manner as we started off 2019, making it the best January showing since 1989. The data continues to point to a slowing global slowing economy, especially in China and in the eurozone with Italy in a recession and France not too far behind. The December-quarter concerns, however, have rolled back and propelled the market higher, especially during the last week of the month when the Fed signaled patience with its speed of further interest rate hikes. For the month in full, the S&P 500 finished up just shy of 8.0%, ahead of the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 7.2% rise, but trailing the tech-heavy Nasdaq’s 9.7% surge.

On top of Friday’s blockbuster January Employment Report, a stronger-than-expected ISM Manufacturing Index reading for January came in, which showcased a rebound in new order activity. On the back of those two reports, the domestic stock market started February off in the green, as that data suggest the U.S. remains the brightest spot in the global economy. That view was supported by the January PMI data released Friday morning by IHS Markit, which showed the U.S. manufacturing economy picking up steam while that activity in the eurozone and Japan slowed, and China marked the second month in contraction territory.

 

Another positive inside the ISM Manufacturing Report was the month-over-month drop in the Prices component. Pairing that with falling prices in the eurozone data, it’s another reason the Federal Reserve can take its finger off the interest rate hike button for the time being. That patient stance, shared by the Fed this week after its latest FOMC meeting, has walked the dollar back some, but as we see in the chart below the greenback’s year-over-year strength will likely continue to be a headwind for companies during the first half of 2019.

 

The current mismatch between U.S. economic data and that for China has raised hopes for U.S.-China trade talks. Also lending a helping hand on that front were several positive tweets from President Trump exiting this week’s round of trade talks. I remain cautiously optimistic but will once again remind subscribers it’s the details that we’ll be focused on when they are released. 

As we move deeper into February, just over half of the S&P 500 companies have yet to report their quarterly results and given the slowing global economy and dollar headwinds we are likely to see further downward revisions to earnings expectations for the S&P 500 in the coming weeks. Along with the market’s push higher in January that has extended into February, should those revisions come to pass it means the market gets incrementally more expensive. This means we should continue to tread carefully in the near-term.

 

As we do this, known catalysts to watch in the coming weeks will be incremental developments on U.S.-China trade and potential moves by the European Central Bank. Following the weakening economic data in the eurozone, ECB President Mario Draghi said, “The European Central Bank is ready to use all its policy tools to support Europe’s softening economy, including by restarting a recently shelved bond-buying program.” There is also the possibility of another government shutdown should Congress fail to reach an agreement on immigration. Who said 2019 was likely to be boring?

 

Tematica Investing

As I have said numerous times, we do not buy the market, but rather invest in companies that are well positioned to capitalize on the tailwinds from our 10 investment themes. From time to time, we are given opportunities to scale into existing positions and in my view, we are seeing that now with Thematic King Amazon (AMZN). The reason for this latest bout of weakness in Amazon’s share price is management’s comments that it will once again investment more than Wall Street expected and the news over e-commerce regulations in India.

From time to time we’ve seen Amazon step up its investment spending and historically its been a great time to load up on the shares because those investments have paved the way for future growth. From opportunities in grocery, mobile payments, streaming video and gaming services, healthcare following its PillPack acquisition as well as expanding the scale and scope of its Amazon Prime service further in the US and abroad, there are ample thematic opportunities for the Amazon business. I also suspect that with FedEx (FDX) looking to collapse order times to under 24 hours for its retail partners, that Amazon too is working on growing its Prime Now offering at the same time.

Let’s turn to the new e-commerce regulations in India and their potential impact on Amazon. The issue is that while these new regulations permit full foreign ownership of ‘single brand’ retailers such as IKEA, restrictions are in place with ‘multibrand’ stores such as supermarkets from outside India. Odds are we will see a rebranding of sorts by the likes of Amazon, Walmart (WMT) and others that are looking to tap into this New Global Middle-Class market. Candidly, given Amazon’s growing private label business that spans apparel, furniture, food, electronics, and other categories, I’m not all that bothered by this. And let’s face it, not only are the folks at Amazon pretty smart, but we have yet to see a market that shuns two-day delivery. I doubt India and its growing middle-class will be the first.

The bottom line with this Thematic King is it is a stock to own as the company is poised to further disrupt other markets, sectors and other business models in the coming quarters.

  • Our long-term price target on Thematic King Amazon (AMZN) shares remains $2,250, which offers more than 35% upside following its December quarter earnings report.

 

 

Del Frisco’s gets serious about entertaining take out bids

After a few weeks of no big news from Living the Life company Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group Inc. (DFRG) after it pre-announced its fourth-quarter revenue in early January, we have a new development that in my view reinforces our belief that the company is putting itself up for sale. More specifically, Del Frisco’s announced on Monday that it has executed a cooperation agreement with its third-largest shareholder, Engaged Capital — the same shareholder that criticized the management team in late 2018 and suggested the company examine its strategic alternatives.

Included in the agreement is the appointment of Joe Reece not only to the Del Frisco’s board but also as the Chairman of the Transaction Committee that is overseeing the company’s previously announced review of strategic alternatives. There are other conditions with the cooperation agreement, but it is the naming of Reece and the comments contained inside the accompanying press release that gives us some insight into his background. The comments read in part:

Glenn W. Welling, the founder and Chief Investment Officer of Engaged Capital, said, “I am pleased to have reached this agreement as part of a constructive dialogue with Del Frisco’s. In addition to his decades of experience working inside boardrooms, Joe Reece brings exceptional experience in investment banking and the capital markets to Del Frisco’s which will be instrumental as the Board evaluates the various opportunities available to maximize value for all shareholders.”

 Joe Reece has over 30 years of experience as a business leader. His experience working with executives at corporations, financial sponsors, and institutional investors, as well as serving on several public company boards, will bring an added dimension to the Board.

Mr. Reece is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Helena Capital. Mr. Reece previously served as Executive Vice Chairman and Head of the Investment Bank for the Americas at UBS Group AG from 2017-2018 as well as serving on the board of UBS Securities, LLC.

 

More on Reece’s background is contained in the press release, but as the above excerpt notes, he has ample investment banking experience. In our view, the naming of Reece as chairman of the Del Frisco’s Transaction Committee means two things. First, the company is serious about examining alternatives to remaining a stand-alone company. Second, it is also serious about extracting the greatest value for its business and brands.

As shareholders, this news has increased my degree of confidence that a transaction, be it with private equity or a strategic partner, is likely to happen. As such, we will continue to keep DFRG shares as a Thematic Leader for the time being to capture these potential gains.

  • As Living the Life Thematic Leader Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG) gets serious with its strategic alternatives, our price target remains $14.