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

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

Key points inside this issue:

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

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

 

Apple’s 2019 iPhone event – more meh than wow

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

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

Not in my view. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

GameStop – It’s only going to get worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

California approves a bill that changes how contract workers are treated

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

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

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

 

Volkswagen set to disrupt the electric vehicle market

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

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

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

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

 

WEEKLY ISSUE: Scaling deeper into Dycom shares

WEEKLY ISSUE: Scaling deeper into Dycom shares

Key points from this issue:

  • We are halfway through the current quarter, and we’ve got a number of holdings on the Tematica Investing Select List that are trouncing the major market indices.
  • We are using this week’s pain to improve our long-term cost basis in Dycom Industries (DY) shares as we ratchet back our price target to $100 from $125.
  • Examining our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme and housing.
  • A Digital Lifestyle company that we plan on avoiding as Facebook attacks its key market.

 

As the velocity of June quarter earnings reports slows, in this issue of Tematica Investing we’re going to examine how our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme is impacting the housing market and showcase a Digital Lifestyle theme company that I think subscribers would be smart to avoid. I’m also keeping my eyes open regarding the recent concerns surrounding Turkey and the lira. Thus far, signs of contagion appear to be limited but in the coming days, I suspect we’ll have a much better sense of the situation and exposure to be had.

With today’s issue, we are halfway through the current quarter. While the major market indices are up 2%-4% so far in the quarter, by comparison, we’ve had a number of strong thematic outperformers. These include Alphabet (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), AXT Inc. (AXTI), Costco Wholesale (COST),  Habit Restaurant (HABT), Walt Disney (DIS), United Parcel Service (UPS), Universal Display (OLED) and USA Technologies (USAT).  That’s an impressive roster to be sure, but there are several positions that have lagged the market quarter to date including GSV Capital (GSVC), Nokia (NOK), Netflix (NFLX), Paccar (PCAR) and Rockwell Automation (ROK). We’ve also experienced some pain with Dycom (DY) shares, which we will get to in a moment.

Last week jettisoned shares of Farmland Partners (FPI) following the company taking it’s 3Q 2018 dividend payment and shooting it behind the woodshed. We also scaled into GSVC shares following GSV’s thesis-confirming June quarter earnings report, and I’m closely watching NFLX shares with a similar strategy in mind given the double-digit drop since adding them to the Tematica Investing Select List just over a month ago.

 

Scaling into Dycom share to improve our position for the longer-term

Last week we unveiled our latest investing theme here at Tematica – Digital Infrastructure. Earlier this week, Dycom Industries (DY), our first Digital Infrastructure selection slashed its outlook for the next few quarters despite a sharp rise in its backlog. Those shared revisions are as follows:

  • For its soon to be reported quarter, the company now sees EPS of $1.05-$1.08 from its previous guidance of $1.13-$1.28 vs. $1.19 analyst consensus estimate and revenues of $799.5 million from the prior $830-$860 million vs. the $843 million consensus.
  • For its full year ending this upcoming January, Dycom now sees EPS of $2.62-$3.07 from $4.26-$5.15 vs. the $4.63 consensus estimate and revenues of $3.01-$3.11 billion from $3.23-$3.43 billion and the $3.33 billion consensus.

 

What caught my eyes was the big disparity between the modest top line cuts and the rather sharp ones to the bottom line. Dycom attributed the revenue shortfall to slower large-scale deployments at key customers and margin pressure due to the under absorption of labor and field costs – the same issues that plagued it in its April quarter. Given some of the June quarter comments from mobile infrastructure companies like Ericsson (ERIC) and Nokia (NOK), Dycom’s comments regarding customer timing is not that surprising, even though the magnitude to its bottom line is. I chalk this up to the operating leverage that is inherent in its construction services business, and that cuts both ways – great when things are ramping, and to the downside when activity is less than expected.

We also know from Ericsson and Dycom that the North American market will be the most active when it comes to 5G deployments in the coming quarters, which helps explain why Dycom’s backlog rose to $7.9 billion exiting July up from $5.9 billion at the end of April and $5.9 billion exiting the July 2017 quarter. As that backlog across Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Windstream and others is deployed in calendar 2019, we should see a snapback in margins and EPS compared to 2018.

With that in mind, the strategy will be to turn lemons – Monday’s 24% drop in DY’s share price – into long-term lemonade. To do this, we are adding to our DY position at current levels, which should drop our blended cost basis to roughly $80 from just under $92. Not bad, but I’ll be inclined to scale further into the position to enhance that blended cost basis in the coming weeks and months on confirmation that 5G is moving from concept to physical network. Like I said in our Digital Infrastructure overview, no 5G network means no 5G services, plain and simple. As we scale into the shares and factor in the revised near-term outlook, I’m also cutting our price target on DY shares to $100 from $125.

  • We are using this week’s pain to improve our long-term cost basis in Dycom Industries (DY) shares as we ratchet back our price target to $100 from $125.

 

Now, let’s get to how our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme is hitting the housing market, and review that Digital Lifestyle company that we’re going to steer clear of because of Facebook (FB). Here we go…

 

If not single-family homes, where are the squeezed middle-class going?

To own a home was once considered one of the cornerstones of the American dream. If we look at the year to date move in the SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (XHB), which is down nearly 16% this year, one might have some concerns about the tone of the housing market. Yes, there is the specter of increasing inflation that has and likely will prompt the Federal Reserve to boost interest rates, and that will inch mortgage rates further from the near record lows enjoyed just a few years ago.

Here’s the thing:

  • Higher mortgage rates will make the cost of buying a home more expensive at a time when real wage growth is not accelerating, and consumers will be facing higher priced goods as inflation winds its way through the economic system leading to higher prices. During the current earnings season, we’ve heard from a number of companies including Cinemark Holdings (CNK), Hostess Brands (TWNK), Otter Tail (OTTR), and Diodes Inc. (DIOD) that are expected to pass on rising costs to consumers in the form of price increases.
  • Consumers debt loads have already climbed higher in recent years and as interest rates rise that will get costlier to service sapping disposable income and the ability to build a mortgage down payment

 

 

And let’s keep in mind, homes prices are already the most expensive they have been in over a decade due to a combination of tight housing supply and rising raw material costs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, higher wood costs have added almost $9,000 to the price of the average new single-family since January 2017.

 

 

Already new home sales have been significantly lower than over a decade ago, and as these forces come together it likely means the recent slowdown in new home sales that has emerged in 2018 is likely to get worse.

 

Yet our population continues to grow, and new households are being formed.

 

This prompts the question as to where are these new households living and where are they likely to in the coming quarters as homeownership costs are likely to rise further?

The answer is rental properties, including apartments, which are enjoying low vacancy rates and a positive slope in the consumer price index paid of rent paid for a primary residence.

 

There are several real estate investment trusts (REITs) that focus on the apartment and rental market including Preferred Apartment Communities, Inc. (APTS) and Independence Realty Trust (IRT). I’ll be looking at these and others to determine potential upside to be had in the coming quarters, which includes looking at their attractive dividend yields to ensure the underlying dividend stream is sustainable. More on this to come.

 

A Digital Lifestyle company that we plan on avoiding as Facebook attacks its key market

As important as it is to find well-positioned companies that are poised to ride prevailing thematic tailwinds that will drive revenue and profits as well as the share price higher, it’s also important to sidestep those that are running headlong into pronounced headwinds. These headwinds can take several forms, but one of the more common ones of late is the expanding footprint of companies like Alphabet (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN) and Facebook (FB) among others.

We’ve seen the impact on shares of Blue Apron (APRN) fall apart over the last year following the entrance of Kroger (KR) into the meal kit business with its acquisition of Home Chef and investor concerns over Amazon entering the space following its acquisition of Whole Foods Market. That changing landscape highlighted one of the major flaws in Blue Apron’s subscription-based business model –  very high customer acquisition costs and high customer churn rates. While we warned investors to avoid APRN shares back last October when they were trading at north of $5, those who didn’t heed our advice are now enjoying APRN shares below $2.20. Ouch!

Now let’s take a look at the shares of Meet Group (MEET), which have been on a tear lately rising to $4.20 from just under $3 coming into 2018. The question to answer is this more like a Blue Apron or more like USA Technologies (USAT) or Habit Restaurant (HABT). In other words, one that is headed for destination @#$%^& or a bona fide opportunity.

According to its description, Meet offers  applications designed to meet the “universal need for human connection” and keep its users “entertained and engaged, and originate untold numbers of casual chats, friendships, dates, and marriages.” That sound you heard was the collective eye-rolling across Team Tematica. If you’re thinking this sounds similar to online and mobile dating sites like Tinder, Match, PlentyOfFish, Meetic, OkCupid, OurTime, and Pairs that are all part of Match Group (MTCH) and eHarmony, we here at Tematica are inclined to agree. And yes, dating has clearly moved into the digital age and that falls under the purview of our Digital Lifestyle investing theme.

Right off the bat, the fact that Meet’s expected EPS in 2018 and 2019 are slated to come in below the $0.39 per share Meet earned in 2017 despite consensus revenue expectations of $181 in 2019 vs. just under $124 million in 2017 is a red flag. So too is the lack of positive cash flow and fall off in cash on the balance sheet from $74.5 million exiting March 2017 to less than $21 million at the close of the June 2018 quarter. A sizable chunk of that cash was used to buy Lovoo, a popular dating app in Europe as well as develop the ability to monetize live video on several of its apps.

Then there is the decline in the company’s average total daily active users to 4.75 million in the June 2018 quarter from 4.95 million exiting 2017. Looking at average mobile daily active users as well as average monthly active user metrics we see the same downward trend over the last two quarters. Not good, not good at all.

And then there is Facebook, which at its 2018 F8 developer conference in early May, shared it was internally testing its dating product with employees. While it’s true the social media giant is contending with privacy concerns, CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared the company will continue to build new features and applications and this one was focused on building real, long-term relationships — not just for hookups…” Clearly a swipe at Match Group’s Tinder.

Given the size of Facebook’s global reach – 1.47 billion daily active users and 2.23 billion monthly active users – it has the scope and scale to be a force in digital dating even with modest user adoption. While Meet is enjoying the monetization benefits of its live video offering, Facebook has had voice and video calling as well as other chat capabilities that could spur adoption and converts from Meet’s platforms.

As I see it, Meet Group have enjoyed a nice run thus far in 2018, but as Facebook gears into the digital dating and moves from internal beta to open to the public, Meet will likely see further declines in user metrics. So, go user metrics to go advertising revenue and that means the best days for MEET shares could be in the rearview mirror. To me this makes MEET shares look more like those from Blue Apron than Habit or USA Technologies. In other words, I plan on steering clear of MEET shares and so should you.

 

 

Bear Markets Ahead?

Bear Markets Ahead?

The third quarter ended with all the major indices in the red for 2015, with small cap stocks as well as the industrials delivering the weakest performances… so the big question is are bear markets ahead?

2015-09-30 Mkt Indices

Every sector also ended the quarter in the red for the year, with the one exception of Consumer Discretionary, which barely eked out a wee little positive return, (technical term there) while the Energy sector and Materials took a major pounding.

2015-09-30 Sectors

So let’s take a bigger step back and see where the markets are from a longer-term perspective. The chart below shows the inflation-adjusted S&P 500 index in constant August 2015 dollars. We believe it is rather telling to see that prior to the current bull run, the S&P 500 peaked in 2000.  The 2007 peak did not quite reach as high as the 2000 peak and had a lower trough.  The most recent bull run reached just slightly higher than the 2000 peak, but has broken its longer-term upward trend and now appears to be on a downtrend.

20150930S&P500inflationadjusted

The big question is are we now in an interim dip, that will provide a great buying opportunity along a continued upward trend, or are we facing the beginnings of a beat market? Hate to say it, but the data is giving me a serious craving for some honey!

  • The typical bear pattern is first a loss of breadth, which we’ve experienced for about 18 months. Check…
  • Next comes loss of leadership. We’ve seen Walt Disney (DIS), which has been on a tear since late 2011 break significantly out of its long-term trend. Sectors like biotech, as illustrated by iShares NASDAQ Biotechnology ETF (IBB) and media, such as Global X Social Media Index ETF (SOCL) have also experienced major directional shifts. Check, check.
  • During the first stage of a bear market, we often see rallies that simply cannot hold. We experienced a painful plunge down to a bottom on August 24th with the following rally unable to bring us back up to the previous highs, followed by another collapse on September 16th. Check, check, check!
  • Finally, after having the markets trade in the tightest trading band in history for the first half of the year, we now have triple digit drops in the Dow Jones Industrial average becoming more frequent. Check, check, check, check!

20150930FailedRally

That’s the market movement, but what about fundamentals? Over the last six months, only about 37% of publicly traded companies have increased their revenue forecasts, which is the smallest percentage since 2009 and almost as bad as during the 2001 bust. Median sales growth estimates for the next 12 months are about 4% versus the longer-term norm of 7%. Meanwhile earnings revisions are back down at historically low levels not seen since the financial crisis.

20150930PositiveEPSRevisions

With weaker earnings moving forward, a continued bull market will need investors that are comfortable with expanding P/E ratios, but that would require that investors be risk-seeking and there isn’t much evidence of that when we look at how much money has been pulled out of emerging market stocks and bonds.  Only time will tell if that bear is coming out of hibernation to stay a while, but for now, I’m getting increasingly defensive as I perceive the potential risks for most equities as being disproportionately nail-biting versus rewards.