NASDAQ at an all-time high …significance?

The NASDAQ Composite index closed yesterday at a level of 5056.06.  That’s an all-time high, surpassing the previous peak of 5048.62 achieved on March 10, 2000.  NASDAQ is the last of the three major US indices to close above the highs made during the last gasps of the internet bubble of 1999-2000.   A purist might say that the all-time intraday high of 5132 and change–also made on March 10, 2000–has not yet been broken through.  Although I’m somewhat of a stickler about these things, I think the closing figure is much more important in this case.  So I buy the idea that we’re at a new high, even though on an intraday basis we’re fifty-some points short.

Does this achievement have any significance?

In terms of fundamentals, no.

In terms of market psychology, yes, in three ways:

–it finally closes the book on the Internet Bubble, allowing technically minded investors to concentrate their attention on the future, rather than retaining this one tiny cautionary reminder of an ugly period in the past

–an old high acts as a psychological ceiling, particularly for chart-oriented investors.  The more time an individual stock or an index spends just below that level, trying to break through but having no success, the stronger and more impenetrable the ceiling becomes (in the NASDAQ case, we’ve been hovering below the old high for about two months).  Once a breakthrough occurs, and provided the stock/index can stay above the old high, the ceiling reverses its role to become a floor that lends support.  In addition, once the old high is crossed, there are no further barriers to advance for chartists to worry about–no more it-can’t-go-higher-than-this levels, just blue sky

–with 2000 out of the way, I think the relevant chart period to consider is from the highs in late 2007 until now.  Over this time frame, NASDAQ isn’t a laggard.  Quite the opposite.   It’s up by 80% from the old highs vs. +35% for the S&P 500.  NASDAQ is the healthy one, not the S&P.

No, the fundamentals haven’t changed.  And no, I’m not going to skew my portfolio further toward NASDAQ names.  Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the OTC index show relative strength over the next few months–provided we can stay above 5048–purely because technically driven buyers will become more favorably disposed toward it.

 

 

Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT) …or an ETF?

When I was reading the Seeking Alpha transcript of INTC’s 1Q15 earnings the other day, I notice that an ad popped up to the right of the text.  It was mostly a list of passive tech-oriented ETFs, with a performance comparison against INTC.  The list showed that INTC had handily outperformed any of the other entries over the pat twelve months   …but that the year-to-date results were a markedly different story.

That started me thinking.  Would I be better off with an ETF than with INTC?

On the one hand,  INTC is a relatively cheap, high dividend yield stock, whose glory days of the PC era are far behind it.  the company finally recognizes this and is in the midst of an attempt to morph into a 21st century-relevant firm. If it’s successful, I can imagine the stock could have, say, a 35% gain in price as Wall Street discounts better future earnings propects (I’d say much the same of the post-Ballmer MSFT).

This isn’t a bad story.  I’m arguably paid to wait.  The stock’s valuation is reasonable.  And at the moment I don’t believe the overall US stock market has very much near-term upside.  So I’ve been content to hold.

The ETF ad, though, got me thinking.   Can I do better, without taking a significantly larger amount of risk?

This question has two parts:

–is there a better tech stock than INTC?, and

–can I locate it?

I’m convinced that the answer to the first is Yes and that the area to look is online services for Millennials and the companies that supply support and infrastructure for them.

For me, the issue is whether to search for, and concentrate, on a single stock–something that requires a lot of time and effort.  I think it’s better to look for an ETF or mutual fund.  The best I’ve found so far is the Web X.O ETF from Ark Investment Management.  The ETF is tiny, so liquidity is a risk–in fact, Merrill Edge wouldn’t accept an online order from me for this reason.  I had no problem with either Fidelity or Vanguard, however.  The other thing is that ARK is a startup.  The principals may have had long Wall Street careers but I see very little evidence of hands-on portfolio management experience.  So ARK is in a sense establishing its bona fides with (a small amount of) my money.  Not exactly the same risk profile as INTC.

Personally, I’m not so concerned about the portfolio manager.  The organization publishes its holdings every day.  For me, liquidity is the bigger worry–and something that would make me reluctant to recommend ARK to anyone else.  Still, I own some.  And I’m looking for other vehicles that can potentially serve the same purpose in my portfolio.

more on discounting

In actual practice, judging what the market has already discounted in the price of an individual stock or the prices of stocks in general, is a tricky thing.  Even seasoned professionals are often wrong.

There are trends in overall market direction that are relatively easy to spot.  In a bull market, investors tend to ignore bad news and respond strongly to good.  In bear markets, the opposite happens.

Perhaps the main reason for professionals that technical analysis is more than a curious practice of a more primitive time is that watching for deviations from the usual daily price action of individual stocks can give clues to what other investors are thinking/doing.  Rises on unusually high volume, for example, can suggest that others are figuring out what you already know and have acted on.  On the other hand, failure of the stock to react positively to news that supports your positive thesis suggests that what you thought was a new, investable insight actually wasn’t.

The reality that investors only act piecemeal, or the idea that we act differently when infused with greed than when in the vise grip of fear are both much too untidy for the statisticians who formulated the Efficient Market Hypothesis/Capital Asset Pricing Model that arose in the 1970s (and which–mind-bogglingly–is still taught in business schools).

These theories have no place for observation/practical experience.  They assume that everyone has the same information and that the market factors new information into prices instantaneously.  What’s particularly ironic is that they were formed during the early 1970s.  How so?

–1972 was the peak of the “Nifty Fifty” or “One-Decision Stocks” speculation.  Investors believed that a small number of stocks–Kodak, Xerox, National Lead, for example–would grow rapidly forever.  Therefore, they should never be sold, and no price was to high to pay to acquire them.  The result was that this group of names traded at as high as 110x earnings–in an environment where the 10-year Treasury yielded 6% and the average stock traded at 11x.

–this high was immediately followed by a vicious bear market in 1973-74 that saw stocks trade in mid-1974 at discounts to net cash on the balance sheet–and still go down every day, on the theory that money in the hands of management scoundrels wasn’t worth 100 cents on the dollar.

How is it that these guys didn’t notice?

discounting and today’s equity market

Discounting is the term Wall Street uses for the idea that investors factor into today’s prices, to a greater or lesser degree, their beliefs about the future (I wrote a detailed post about the process in October 2012).

 

Two of the major macroeconomic factors the market is wrestling with now are the timing and extent of the Fed’s future moves to raise interest rates from their current emergency lows, and the possibility that Greece will default on its debts and exit the euro.

 

My experience is that almost nothing is ever 100% discounted in advance.  There’s always some price movement when the event actually happens.  Having said that, the coming rise in interest rates in the US has been so anticipated–and talked about by the Fed–for such a long time that there may even be a positive market reaction to the first rise.  This would be on the idea that Wall Street would give a sigh of relief when there’s no more anticipatory tension to deal with.  More likely, there’ll be a mild negative movement, for a short period, but that’s all.

The Greek financial crisis has also been in the news for a long time.  But we don’t have the same extensive history of behavior during past economic cycles to draw on, the way we do with the Fed.  We do have Argentina as a case study in what happens to the defaulting country (personally, I expect the consequences of default for Greece would be pretty terrible for its citizens).  But the focus of investors’ concern is what damage might be done to the EU by Greece’s leaving.  In addition, lots of non-economic factors are involved in this situation.  There’s Greece’s central role in Europe’s beliefs about its own exceptionalism.  There’s the Greek portrayal of the EU’s requirement that Greece implement structural economic reform as a condition for debt relief as 21st-century Nazism.  There’s the status quo in Greece that has benefited from the country’s profligate borrowing.  There’s fear of the unknown that must be urging politicians to paper over Greece’s problems.

In addition, my sense is that the markets’ overriding emotion so far is denial–hope that the whole situation will go away.  Current thinking seems to be that the parties will arrange for some sort of default, along with capital controls to restrict the flow of euros out of Greece, that will allow Greece to stay in the EU.  Still, I find it very hard to calculate odds or even to anticipate what the worst that can happen might be, or the best.  This makes me think that very little of the possible negatives of “Grexit” are factored into today’s prices.

More tomorrow.

Berkshire Hathaway and Kraft

A little less than a month ago, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Heinz (controlled by Brazilian investment firm 3G) jointly announced a takeover offer for Kraft.  The Associated Press quoted Mr. Buffett as asserting “This is my kind of transaction.”  I looked for the press release containing the quote on the Berkshire website before starting to write this, but found nothing.   The News Releases link on the home page was last updated two weeks before the Kraft announcement.  Given the kindergarten look of the website, I’m not so surprised   …and I’m willing to believe the quote is genuine.  If not, there goes the intro to my post.

 

As to the “my kind” idea, it is and it isn’t.

On the one hand, Buffett has routinely been willing to be a lender to what he considers high-quality franchises, notably financial companies, in need of large amounts of money quickly–often during times of financial and economic turmoil.  The price of a Berkshire Hathaway loan typically includes at least a contingent equity component.  The Kraft case, a large-size private equity deal, is a simple extension of this past activity.

On the other, this is not the kind of equity transaction that made Mr. Buffett’s reputation–that is, buying a large position in a temporarily underperforming firm with a strong brand name and distribution network, perhaps making a few tweaks to corporate management, but basically leaving the company alone and waiting for the ship to right itself.  In the case of 3G’s latest packaged goods success, Heinz, profitability did skyrocket–but only after a liberal dose of financial leverage and the slash-and-burn laying off of a quarter of the workforce!  This is certainly not vintage Buffett.

Why should the tiger be changing its stripes?

Two reasons:

the opportunity.

I think many mature companies are wildly overstaffed, even today.

Their architects patterned their creation on the hierarchical structure they learned in the armed forces during the World War II era.  A basic principle was that a manager could effectively control at most seven subordinates, necessitating cascading levels of middle managers between the CEO and ordinary workers.  A corollary was that you could gauge a person’s importance by the number of people who, directly or indirectly, reported to him.

Sounds crazy, but at the time this design was being implemented, there was no internet, no cellphones, no personal computers, no fax machines, no copiers.  The ballpoint pen had still not been perfected.  Yes, there were electric lights and paper clips.  So personal contact was the key transmission mechanism for corporate communication.

Old habits die hard.  It’s difficult to conceive of making radical changes if you’ve been brought up in a certain system–especially if the company in question is steadily profitable.  And, of course, the manager who decided to cut headcount risked a loss of status.

Hence, 3G’s success.

plan A isn’t working  

One of the first, and most important, marketing lessons I have learned is that you don’t introduce strawberry as a flavor until sales of vanilla have stopped growing.  Why complicate your life?

Buffett’s direct equity participation in Kraft is a substantial departure from the type of investing that made him famous.  I’ve been arguing for some time that traditional value investing no longer works in the internet era.  That’s because the internet has quickly broken down traditional barriers to entry in very many industries.  It seems to me that Buffet’s move shows he thinks so too.

 

 

 

 

cooling the Chinese stock market fever

In the 1990s, Alan Greenspan, the head of the Fed back then, famously warned against “irrational exuberance” in the US stock market, but did nothing to stop it   …this even though he had the ability to cool the market down by tightening the rules on margin lending.  This is the stock market  analogue to raising or lowering the Fed Funds rate to influence the price of credit, but has never been used seriously in the US during my working life.

The  Bank of Japan has no such compunctions.  It has been very willing to chasten/encourage speculatively minded retail investors by tightening/loosening the criteria for borrowing money to buy stocks.

 

We have no real history to generalize from in the case of China.  But moves in recent weeks by the Chinese securities markets regulator seem to indicate that Beijing will fall into the stomp-on-the-brakes camp.

Specifically,

–at the end of last month, the regulator allowed (ordered?) domestic mutual funds to invest in shares in Hong Kong, where mainland-listed firms’ shares are trading at hefty discounts to their prices in Shanghai

–highly leveraged “umbrella trusts” cooked up by Chinese banks to circumvent margin eligibility requirements have been banned,

–a new futures product, based on small and mid-cap stocks, has been created, offering speculators the opportunity to short this highly heated sector for the first time, and

–effective today, institutional investors in China are being allowed to lend out their holdings–providing short-sellers with the wherewithal to ply their trade (although legal, short-selling hasn’t been a big feature of domestic Chinese markets until now, because there wasn’t any easy way to obtain share to sell short).

What does all this mean?

The simplest conclusion is that Beijing wants to pop what it sees as a speculative stock market bubble on the mainland.  It is possible, however, that more monetary stimulus–to prop up rickety state-owned enterprises or loony regional government-sponsored real estate projects–is in the pipeline and Beijing simply wants to dampen the potential future effects on stocks.

I have no idea which view is correct.

It’s clear, however, that Hong Kong is going to be a port in any storm, and that it is going to be increasingly used as a safety valve to absorb upward market pressure from the mainland.  So relative gains vs. Shanghai seem assured.  Whether that means absolute gains remains to be seen, although I personally have no inclination to trim my HK holdings.

 

 

1Q15 results for Intel (INTC)

the results

INTC reported 1Q15 earnings after the close on Tuesday.   Results were flattish year-on-year, matching analysts’ forecasts.  This was unsurprising, given  INTC had preannounced 1Q15 was not going as well as expected.  The company thinks some, but not much, relief from the current doldrums will appear in the second half.

The culprit has been the traditional PC business.  Small-and medium-sized firms haven’t been converting their old Windows XP desktops to newer machines.  Maybe they’ve decided to wait for Windows 10, or they don’t want to update their (pirated?) Office programs or they just figure they’ll use XP until something breaks.  Whatever the reason they’re not buying.

This hurts INTC in two related ways:  OEMs don’t have to reorder parts   …and they run down their inventory levels to match weaker demand.  INTC thinks the second process was pretty much over by the end of March.

Notebooks and tablets were up, though, and the server-related businesses are going great guns.

picky stuff

INTC now thinks its full-year tax rate will be 25%, not the 27% previously forecast.  This suggests the current mix of business is more Asia, less US than the company previously thought.

INTC is cutting capital expenditure plans.  Weaker PC demand means less need for older factories, which can be refit for more cutting-edge use.  Hence, less need to build from scratch.

Tablet demand was up 45% yoy in 1Q15.  This is good news and bad.  Good that someone wants the chips, bad in that INTC is essentially paying users to take them.  Nothing new here.  However, INTC had expected to begin to show profits on them by yearend.  That apparently is not going to happen.  INTC was likely planning to get out of the hole both by raising prices and by driving down unit manufacturing costs.  My guess is that the first isn’t happening yet.  (My view is that whatever it takes to get INTC parts into the hands of manufacturers is the correct strategy.  Ideally, the prior CEO would have understood the movement away from big clunky tethered PCs and reacted years ago.  But that’s water under the bridge.)

the big change (in my view)

INTC has changed the way it is presenting results to investors, effective with 1Q15.  It is folding the loss-making Mobile and Communications Group into the former PC Client Group, now dubbed Client Computing Group.

Some of this is just optics–the MCG lost about $1 billion a quarter during 2014, mostly trying to jumpstart the tablet business.  So we won’t see the red ink any more.

At the same time, through the magic of subtracting mobile losses from PC profits, the server business  becomes the largest single earner INTC has.

conclusions

In a sense, INTC is saying it wants to be known as an internet infrastructure company that happens to make PCs, rather than as a PC firm that happens to make servers.

Who wouldn’t!, a cynic might comment.

I think  the move is more than that, however.  It may also signal a change in behavior.  The new line of business table neatly divides the company into a growth segment–servers, embedded internet-of-things chips, 3-D flash…–and a mature cash cow, Client Computing.

If so, the first will be run as a profit center and measured by growth, the second more or less a cost center and measured by contribution margin (the reason I wrote about this topic yesterday).

During the conference call (as usual, I read the Seeking Alpha transcript) INTC said the servers etc. are accounting for 60% of the company’s profits right now.  If we assume that these businesses can continue to grow at 20% annually and that CCG stays flat, then servers etc. would be 75% of INTC’s profits–and expanding in scale–in 2018.

This would presumably result in a higher PE multiple at come point, as well as higher earnings.  The question I’m currently pondering is whether this prospect makes INTC more attractive than a tech-oriented ETF.

 

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