December 2014 earnings for Microsoft (MSFT)

the report

Last night MSFT announced earnings for the December 2014 quarter, which is the second fiscal quarter of 2015 (ends in June).  At eps of $.71 a share, results were in line with analysts’ expectations, even though income was dinged by $.02  by restructuring charges and $.04 from an IRS audit adjustment.

Overall, the report was a mixed bag.

On the one hand, the restoration of MSFT to relevance under new CEO Satya Nadella continues apace.  On the other, the renewed vigor that the traditional MSFT business has been exhibiting recently appears to be coming to an end.  In particular,

–In the earnings release on the MSFT website (data are humorously difficult to download if you don’t own Office) the company made it clear that the period of extra oomph to sales of Windows caused by the termination of XP support has come to an end.  Sales had been boosted both by some former XP users upgrading to new machines and by others simply buying a newer OS.

–It’s also clear that we’re entering a period where currency effects–the decline of the euro and the yen vs. the dollar–are going to have a significant negative impact on earnings.  I think this means a drop of somewhere between 5% and 10% vs. where profits would be without currency movements.  This loss takes two forms:  a decline in the value of foreign currency-denominated assets, which is recognized immediately (in 2Q15 the figure was ($390 million); and the lower dollar value of foreign currency-denominated sales.  Part of the latter is recognized in income immediately but most sits on the balance sheet as deferred revenue before reaching the income statement (this is a long-winded way of saying that some currency losses won’t be booked for a while).  And, of course, the euro is about 8% lower today than it was on December 31st.  MSFT estimates the 3Q15 loss at 4% of revenue.

The net result of these two negatives will likely be that eps for MSFT will be flattish over the coming twelve months, rather than the +10% that most analysts appear to have been forecasting.  (How they justified these numbers in the face of the strong dollar is another issue.)

the stock

As I’m writing this, MSFT shares are down by 10%, in a market that is off by a bit less than 2%.

It’s also a day on which I’m sure lots of people didn’t make into work (and those who did are in a bad mood), as well as one where a raft of negative-surprise earnings releases have been issued.  So it’s not a good day to announce bad news.

Still, I’m personally a bit surprised by the extent of the negative reaction.  I’m not sure quite qhat to make of it, other than it’s very negative.

I have no desire to sell the MSFT I own.  On the other hand, I have no burning desire to buy more.

If I thought 2015 would be a sharply up year for stocks, I’d probably be thinking of selling to buy something with more upside potential.  But I expect the market to basically move sideways this year.  So I’ve got to be more concerned that this decline is just the first stop on a down elevator.  Right now, I don’t think that’s right, either.  But that’s where analysis has to be focused.

My biggest reaction is that I’ve got to look even more carefully through the stocks I own to uncover exposure to weak foreign currencies.  Ultimately, I guess, I believe this is the cause of the sharp MSFT price drop.

The main thing the MSFT report tells me is that Wall Street is much less far along than I would have imagined in discounting currency losses to US-based multinationals from a declining euro.  A second observation is that the European stock markets have probably been as poor at factoring in earnings gains that euro-based firms are achieving from their dollar exposure.

 

 

 

 

the Greek election

Yesterday Greece held a parliamentary election.  Its result was that the sitting government was replaced by a coalition whose main platform is renegotiation of the terms of that country’s bailout agreement with its EU creditors.

The Greek argument for further restructuring is that the country has suffered enough by not having grown for a half-decade, that it has made significant structural reforms and that, at 175% of GDP, its euro-denominated sovereign debt is impossible to repay no matter what Greece does.

The other side is, more or less, that Greece deliberately deceived lenders for years by issuing falsified national accounts, so it doesn’t deserve better treatment.  (There’s a fuller discussion in my posts  about Greece from 2010.)

When I saw the election news last night, the euro had declined by about a percent from Friday’s close and S&P 500 futures were down by about 12 points.  As I’m writing this, the euro is up by more than a percent against the USD, stocks indices across Europe are rising and the S&P is down by about half what the futures in Asia were showing.

How so?

I think the markets are coming around to the view–which I think is probably correct–that the EU knows deep down that the current austerity regime is unsustainable, particularly in the current no-growth situation for the union as a whole.  Greek may well be the trigger for a more general rethink of a restrictive fiscal policy that simply hasn’t worked.

If so, this would be another reason for a harder look at beaten up EU stocks.

 

 

the euro, the US$ and the Swiss franc

With the beginning of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, the euro has slipped against the USD by about another 3% today to a value of 1 € = US$1.12.  That’s a decline in the euro of about 7.5% just since January 1st.  The EU currency has tumbled by more than 14% vs. the greenback over the past year, and by almost 20% since its high of $1.39+ last May.

This is an astounding fall for the world’s second most important currency.  It’s an enormous boost for EU-based enterprise overall and for exporters in particular–as well as a huge burden for their hard currency-based rivals. It would also be a mind-boggling loss of national wealth for EU citizens, were it not that Japan has depreciated the yen by a third over the past few years in a bid to regain global relevance for its manufacturing base.

Enough of this.   Down to brass tacks:

the euro/dollar

The income statements of US companies with EU exposure will be savaged by the currency decline.  Yes, in theory they may be able to raise prices to recover some of their depreciation-created losses.  But the general rule in this situation is that prices can only go up in line with overall inflation–which is non-existent in the EU at the moment.

My strong feeling is that Wall Street hasn’t fully worked this out yet.  So combing through our holdings to find euro victims should be a high priority for each of us.

the euro/Swiss franc (CHF)

The CHF has gained almost 25% against the euro since the Swiss central bank depegged its currency from the euro a little more than a week ago.  The speed of the move clearly shows what should have been apparent over the past year of euro depreciation–that the Swiss government was trying to maintain a peg that was miles away from where the cross rate would be without constant economy-distorting intervention.

We know this sort of thing can’t last.  If the forty-year history of floating exchange rates shows anything it’s that trying to maintain an artificial exchange rate always ends in disaster.  Yet what continues to come out in the press post-depegging is that:

–lots of EU property owners had decided it was a great idea to take out a CHF-denominated mortgage on their homes.  Short-term rates were negative, after all.  Ouch!

–a number of commodities brokers are in serious financial trouble because they allowed individual clients to build up short-CHF positions on margin that were so big there’s no chance they’ll ever be able to repay the losses they’ve incurred.

–there’s been a parade of currency trader departures from hedge funds caught out by the same short-CHF bet.

I guess this just shows that P T Barnum was right–that despite the examples of the collapse of the pre-euro Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the Asian debt crisis later in that decade and all of the problems with one-size-fits-all Eurobonds, there are still tons of people willing to take what history shows is the losing side of a wager.

 

 

the view from Canada

Yesterday the Governor of the Bank of Canada, that country’s central bank, announced it was lowering short-term interest rates from 1% to .75% as an “insurance” measure to help the Canadian economy adjust to lower oil and gas prices.  The move doesn’t come as a huge surprise, given that the oil and gas industry is close to 10% of the Canadian economy and has been accounting for about a third of its GDP growth.

In the words of Governor Stephen Poloz, “The drop in oil prices is unambiguously negative for the Canadian economy.  Canada’s income from oil exports will be reduced, and investment and employment in the energy sector are already being cut.”

To me, more interesting is the bank’s quarterly Monetary Policy Report, released at the same time, which deals with the global effects of lower oil.  It says:

1.  the Bank is assuming the oil price ultimately recovers to US$60 a barrel–no $100 oil anywhere in sight

2.  Canada gradually shifts focus to non-energy industries of the type which have been in decline during the energy boom years

3.  the net effect on world GDP growth of the oil price fall is zero, both in 2015 and 2016.  On an area by area basis, however:

–the US is a net winner.  It grows at a real rate of  +3.2% in 2015 (rather than the previously projected +2.9%) and +2.8% )+2.7%) in 2016

–China is, too.  It expands at +7.2% (+7.0%) and +7.0% (+6.9%)

–the EU, as well.  It advances at +0.9% (+0.8%) and +1.2% (+1.0%)

–Japan is up by +0.6% (+0.7%) and +1.6% (+0.8%)

–the rest of the world is a mild net loser, growing at +3.1% (+3.2%) in 2015 and reounding to +3.4% (+3.4%) the following year.

In the last category, Canada grows at +2.1% (+2.4%) this year before rebounding in mid-2015.

 

 

 

 

reading the paper yesterday morning…

I’m postponing writing about my early days as an oil analyst until tomorrow.

An article in the Wall Street Journal,  “Investor Bind:  How Low Can Oil Go?,” struck my eye as I was waiting a doctor’s office yesterday morning.  Two aspects:

The article quotes a Swiss oil trader as saying the current market for petroleum is “irrational.”  He explained that the craziness consisted in the market concentrating solely on bad news and ignoring any possible ray of sunshine.

Yes, this is irrational.  But, more to the point, this is the essence of a bear market, that good news gets ignored and only bad news gets factored into prices.  (A bull market is just the opposite.  In a bull market, all the bad news goes in one ear and out the other; only the good news has an influence on prices.)  I wonder why he didn’t just say that.  Maybe he did, but the reporter didn’t understand.  On the other hand, maybe he didn’t realize.

Second, the article leads off with hedge fund Tusker Capital, LLC of Manhattan Beach, California.  The fund had been betting heavily on a decline in crude oil prices since at least the middle of last year and has just cashed in its chips after cleaning up oin a major way on the subsequent 60% fall in the oil price.

According to the article, Tusker gained 17% overall in 2014 and is up by 10% for 2015 through mid-January.  Implied, but not explicitly stated, is that the largest part of the +10% this year comes from the bet against the price of crude., with is down by 8.6%.  Why else would it be the lead in a sotry about a crashing oil quote.

The occupational disease of analysts is that they analyze.  As I sat in the waiting room–and waited–it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t make the Tusker numbers make sense.

Tusker has “roughly” $100 million under management now (I take that statement to mean the assets under management are just shy of $100 million, but let’s say $100 million is the right figure).  This means it had $91 million under management on December 31st and $78 million at the end of 2013–assuming no inflows or outflows.

Let’s say all of the $11 million gain in assets under management in early 2015 comes from the negative bet on oil.  If the same bet were maintained through the second half of 2014, it should have produced a gain of about $55 million.  But Tusker’s assets were only up by $13 million in 2014.  Either a lot of customer money left, or something really horrible happened in the rest of the portfolio, or “all” is too high a number.  My hunch is that at least the last is correct.

Let’s say half the 2015 gain comes from the negative bet on oil (regular readers will know that 1/2 is my default guess on most things).  If so, then the bet should have produced a profit of around $27 million in 2014.  Same story, although with somewhat less draconian figures–something else happened that caused $14 million in assets to disappear–disaster or withdrawals, or both–or maybe Tusker initially had a much smaller bet gainst oil that it expanded as crude began to sink.

I later Googled Tusker and found an article, from the New York Post, of all places, that said Tusker had assets of $105 million at the end of June 2013 and that the firm strongly believed that the end of quantitative easing in the US would cause a collapse in commodities prices.

To sum up: Tusker made a hugely successful bet against oil that likely made it $40 million – $70 million.  Yet it now has less money under management than it did 18 months ago (a period during which the S&P 500 went up by about 30%).  There’s certainly a story here.  It may not be about oil, though.

 

 

 

natural resources and economic growth

I ended up with my first stock market job, more or less by accident–and without any finance experience or training–in the late summer of 1978.  A few months later, the firm’s oil analyst was headhunted away and I took his place.  Within a couple of years (an MBA from NYU at night along the way) I had picked up a bunch of metals mining companies, too, and was in charge of the firm’s natural resources research.

The oil industry was (and still is) really non-intuitive–more about my early adventures tomorrow.  Today I want to write about the mining industry, which is a little more straightforward.

natural resources in the 1970s

I started out by reading the annual reports and 10-Ks of the major base metals mining companies for the prior five or six years.  What stood out clearly was that all the firms held very strongly a series of common beliefs, namely:

1.  that global economic growth would continue to be strong for as far into the future as one could imagine,

2.  that the availability of all sorts of base metals–lead for batteries, copper for wiring and tubing, iron ore for steel, and so on–was a necessary condition for this growth

3.  that, therefore, demand for base metals would grow at least in lockstep with GDP increases.

Implicitly, the companies also assumed that:

4. that oversupply was highly unlikely,

5.  that substitution among raw materials–like aluminum or PVC for copper–wouldn’t be an issue, and

6. that, because of 4. and 5., the selling price of output from future orebody discovery/development would never be a concern.

CEOs’ conviction was buttressed by reams of computer paper containing economists’ regression analyses “proving” that all this stuff was true.

a massive investment cycle…

Naturally, the companies, not risk-shy by nature, went all in across the board on new base metals mine development.

As I was reading these documents in 1979-80, the first (of many) massive new low-cost orebodies were coming into production.  This wave turned out to have been enough to keep most base metals in oversupply–and a lot of mines unprofitable–for the following twenty-five years!!!  Miners were also in the midst of a massive switch to exploring for gold, where high value deposits could be developed quickly and at low-cost–causing, in turn, a twenty year glut of the yellow metal.

…that didn’t work out

The mining CEOs turned out to be wrong in a number of ways:

–like any capital-intensive commodity business where the minimum plant size is huge, industry profits for base metals are determined by long cycles of under-capacity followed by massive investment in new mines that causes long periods of over-capacity

–although it wasn’t apparent in the 1970s, substitution of cheaper materials has been a chronic problem for base metals.  Take copper.  There’s aluminum for heat dissipation and wiring, PVC for plumbing, and glass/airwaves for audiovisual transmission.

–Peter Drucker was writing about knowledge workers as early as 1959.  Nevertheless, the mining companies and their economists weren’t able to imagine a world where GDP growth might not require immense amounts of extra physical materials.

I’ve been looking for a sound byte-y way to put this all into perspective.  The best I can do is a gross oversimplification:

–real GDP in the US has expanded by 245% since 1980.  Oil usage is up by about 10% over that period; steel usage is down slightly.  The supposed dependence of GDP growth on increased use of natural resouces simply isn’t true.

Why am I writing about this today?

…it’s because I continue to read and hear financial “experts” say that weak oil and metals prices imply declining world economic activity.  To me this argument makes no sense.

 

 

 

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